Hot Wheels

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2004

The newest, sleekest, most Euro-chic mode of local transportation is not a sports car. It's a bicycle. A Volta electric bicycle, to be precise-a battery-operated hybrid that allows you to pedal like a regular bike, then switch between partly and fully motorized modes whenever your legs get tired.

Sarasota was the site last winter of the Volta's U.S. rollout because it's the home of its international distributor, Piero Rivolta. An Italian-born Renaissance man who, in his long and highly public career, has also produced automobiles, yachts, commercial and residential real estate and books of poetry, Rivolta is typically enthusiastic about the Volta's prospects here. In the great seaside resort towns of Europe, where it's been available for four years, he says, "it becomes something elegant. In Europe that is the trend: you go to the beach, to the hotel with this bike. It looks fun. Here we believe it is the same." Indeed, Rivolta says, such local luminaries as Brenda Johnson, wife of AC/DC rocker Brian Johnson, and clothing designer Adrienne Vittadini have purchased Voltas.

Under full electric power, the zippy-looking Volta can travel two and a half hours at a top speed of 15 miles per hour. You can ride it on streets just like a bike; no license or registration is required, but all the same laws apply (helmets for riders under the age of 16, for example). When it needs recharging, you disconnect the battery from the bike, bring it indoors and put it in a "smart charger" that plugs into a wall.

Says Erik Kauk, general manager of University Bikes, the area's authorized Volta service dealer, "There are other electric bikes on the market, but we like ours best. Ours has the best combination of power and ride time. Literally, you twist the throttle and go."

Manufactured in China, the Volta retails for $1,399-although with rebates and special promotions, University Bikes was offering it for $999 last spring. Kauk says he sold more than 40 in the first two months after it debuted in mid-January. "Our average customer is a retired person who wants basic transportation around his country club, because in some communities they aren't allowed to ride their golf carts around.."

Younger people are beginning to jump on the electric bike bandwagon, too. Kauk says a few people who live and work downtown have bought them for commuting short distances. "There are no emissions, it's quiet and doesn't create parking headaches," he says. "It's a fun product. The best way to describe it is to get on one and go. Then you say, 'Oh, wow, now I get it.'"

Rivolta and his wife Rachele spelled rite? Ask kay(I did; it's Rachele-Ilene) ride their metallic red and silver Voltas across the new Ringling Causeway. "With this, you bike a little bit, you start the engine a little bit, and up you go," says the ebullient Piero (she is italian, too). "And you cannot believe the people who stop me and say, 'oh, fantastic.'"

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