Written by Gerald Harrison – The Harrison Collection
Having sadly not yet had the opportunity to meet Pepo Rosell in person, nor seen his workshop I can only imagine a nutty professor style underground lair with countless shelves, reaching from floor to ceiling, laden with motorcycle parts. Striplights flicker and hum, the mad genius cackling as he concocts his latest masterstroke. Reality was initially not so different; a basement in Madrid, tinkering with bikes. Not a born artist, bikes aren’t pre-conceptualised, parts are woven together using trial and error until a pleasing blend is achieved, sometimes using cardboard cutouts to create shapes. There’s no recipe, no real method to the madness, just a keen eye for what looks and feels right. Everything is experimental. Pepo values lightness over power, most of his bikes can be considered road race bikes, some aren’t road registered.
Pepo has been working on bikes since before I was born and to date has completed 160 ground-up builds of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. I feel immensely privileged to be the guardian of the faibled “nine and a half” a bike which has inspired many. It’s hard for me to believe that the real deal is in my garage, I was fascinated by it from the moment I first saw it and it took a few years to procure. The genesis of Pepo, one of the first dozen bikes he touched and, in my opinion, a founding bike that helped kickstart the current revolution of custom culture we now enjoy, it’s a holy grail bike of tremendous importance. He had a 999 tank lying around which he put on a modified M900 frame, the origins of which he now can’t remember, an ST2 engine was whacked in and the rest is history. Since then, Radical Ducati, now under new ownership, has continued the legacy of the 9 1/2 by building replicas based on the 999. The initial concept took its inspiration from a 450cc desmo factory race bike, a “four and a half,” it wears red lettering on a white tank, Pepo’s 944cc creation became the nine and a half.
That may have been the only time Pepo drew inspiration from Ducati as he claims that the roles have sometimes been reversed. In late autumn of 2007 Ducati launched the 1098, it bore a striking resemblance to Pepo’s RAD 01, which, on a side note, was designed by the award winning designer Michael Uhlarik, that had been released in January that year. In 2012 Ducati introduced us to the Panigale which, to Pepo (and I have to agree with him), looks an awful lot like his RAD 02 Corse Evo which he released a year previously, likewise for the new V4 Streetfighter and Pepo’s Siluro which was built 3 years beforehand, he even foresaw the wildly successful Ducati Scrambler. An avant gardiste par extraordinaire. I know that these are big and maybe controversial statements and I’m not saying that this is right or wrong, you can judge for yourselves.
Young Pepo was an enthusiast, his first bike being a 75cc two stroke Montesa which promptly received an engine upgrade, in the eighties he used a Ducati 350 thumper for his commute to university where he studied biology. He progressed to working in a governmental laboratory for a fishfarm but his passion for bikes and the modifying thereof was never far from his mind. Pepo was forever fettling, tuning, and adapting bikes, so when his time as a biologist came to an end he turned his focus to working with motorcycles full time.
The year was 1990, a never ending quest for parts led him to work in the importation of Ducati’s into Spain, however this proved boring and he teamed up with one of the works mechanics and setup shop on the outskirts of Madrid; Servicio Recambi Ducati. Crucially they ran a race team that competed in the Spanish super sport championship with a 748SP, the story is not totally dissimilar to the three Ducati mechanics, Nepoti, Caracchi, Rizzi that founded NCR and fundamentally gave birth to the racing Ducati. This has clearly influenced his race inclination, nevertheless within a few years, his time with SRD also became tedious. All this in an interestingly obliquitous way to say that in 2001 Radical Ducati was born.
Since then Pepo has mostly worked alongside fellow artisan “Wolfman.” The two clearly don’t see eye to eye when it comes to aesthetics, if Wolfman doesn’t like the look of a bike and especially if he finds it particularly unappealing Pepo knows that it’s just right! However, the duo are visionaries, and have created an incredible array of bikes, based on not just Ducati’s but Japanese and German machines too, the utilisation of bikes from Europe and Japan has led to the man feeling like an outsider, maybe this is a natural sentiment for someone so ahead of his time. As a fellow aesthete I’m fascinated by the often outlandish and eye catching colour schemes he so often chooses, when we look back on his era of motorsport we can only see black and white images but he was there and saw the wondrously colourful bikes racing at the 24 Horas de Montuïc for example, his work heralds this Belle Époque.
So, what’s the nine and a half actually like? Well, it’s not quite perfect, built completely by hand in a minuscule underground cellar, some of the welding is unsurprisingly a little quirky. Other than that it’s a glorious machine and one of the few bikes that I have ever owned that always always always starts, it has never failed to start or broken down, not that I’ve ridden it a lot. Clearly there’s no nanny state in Pepo’s world, the exhaust emits a cacaphonous barrage of noise and the ride is brutal, handling sharp and unforgiving, it’s very light and very fast. There’s no sidestand, the seat is paper thin, it wears just one gauge; a basic Ducati rev counter, race slicks and the expansion chambre is a little too small so you end up with a warm wet patch on your upper inside thigh, I promise it’s just coolant. It’s a unique machine and while a replica might look similar it doesn’t and cannot replicate the feeling of purity and rawness of THE nine and a half.
Pushing 60, Pepo is taking a hiatus from building motorcycles; his boundless energy is evident during our FaceTime conversation so it’s not because he’s tired or bored, but ever the non conformist it’s because “people are idiots” A sentiment I’m sure most of us can agree with!