When Cristina Dumitru started cycling to work in Bucharest, her friends thought she was crazy. "The poor man's transport" is how biking was long known in Romania. Not any more.

For the Bucharest in-crowd, cycling is now the way to roll, with fashionable bars like Origo and Bicicleta featuring bicycles as design objects and collective bike rides staged on a weekly basis, while bike shops and bicycle-related blogs have mushroomed.

"After the fall of Communism in 1989, everyone wanted a car. A man riding a big car became the image of success," Corneliu Belciug, programme director at the urban environmentalist group Green Revolution, told AFP.

After decades under a dictatorship that banned car imports, when would-be drivers had to wait for years before getting a locally-manufactured Dacia, Western cars became cult objects.

The number of cars almost quadrupled in Romania in 20 years, from 1.2 million to 4.5 million, according to the Institute of Statistics.

"But after the boom, people started to realise that the streets remained the same as 20 years ago and what we achieved was just being blocked for hours in traffic jams in our expensive cars," Belciug said.

Despite its large parks and lime tree-lined boulevards, Bucharest saw a rise in air pollution.

Two years ago, the Romanian capital ranked last in an EU-funded study of air pollution in 25 major European cities.

For a new urban generation of Romanians seeking greater mobility and a better environment, it was time for a bike renaissance.

Stylish cycling

"I love the feeling of freedom that the bike gives me. I love feeling the wind in my hair, the scent of trees and flowers, discovering new streets, being in control of what I do," 29-year-old Cristina Dumitru told AFP.

Every day Dumitru takes down her bike from her fifth floor apartment and rides 20 minutes to her work as manager of an upmarket dog kennel in the capital, dubbed the Pet Hotel.

She has also joined "Skirtbike", a colourful annual parade of thousands of skirt-clad women who promote stylish cycling.

"We show that it's possible to be elegant while riding a bike," Oana Deliu, co-founder of the Skirtbike movement with Andreea Toader, told AFP.

Deliu, a 31-year-old IT specialist, launched the skirtbike blog (www.skirtbike.ro) in 2010.

"Women cyclists were not organised as a group and they needed a place to meet. Our site is a virtual coffee shop. Female bikers leave comments about their rides, their fears, the bikes fitting their needs and we try to advise them," she explains.

Families with kids have also rediscovered the joys of biking in the parks of Bucharest.

Bike sharing schemes have blossomed in Romania in line with a worldwide trend.

"I'Velo" was launched in Bucharest in 2010 by Green Revolution together with Austrian bank Raiffeisen.

Without any public funding, the programme -- which does not run in the winter because of heavy snow -- has now been extended to Romania's main cities and has registered 750,000 rentals in less than three years.

Bike sales have surged since 2009, experts and shop owners told AFP.

Some retailers report sales growing by 50 percent between 2009 and 2010, and by another 10 percent per year since 2011.

While there are no official figures available for Romania, Roxana Bituleanu, the head of the national association of bike manufacturers, importers and retailers (ASPIC) told AFP the national bike market was estimated at 45 million euros ($60.8 million).

"The bike market is clearly growing in Romania," Georgiana Marinoiu, communication manager for Decathlon, a leading global sports retailer, told AFP.

Three young entrepreneurs have just relaunched the most famous Romanian cycling brand, Pegas, which collapsed after the fall of Communism.

They sold 500 newly designed Pegas bikes in 2012 and plan to reach up to 5,000 in 2014.

Mediaeval villages trail

But the "bike revolution" has still a long way to go to make Bucharest the Amsterdam of Eastern Europe.

"The number of people using bikes as a Sunday pastime is a lot higher than ones using it as an alternative means of transport, and this needs to change," Marian Ivan, from cycling advocacy group Optar told AFP.

"We need better infrastructure," he added.

Bucharest has only 20 kilometres (12 miles) of bike paths, most of them badly designed, a far cry from Amsterdam's dense network of 400 kilometres.

In September, thousands of Romanian cyclists protested in Bucharest urging authorities to "end their inertia" and invest in cycling.

They hope Bucharest could one day join Budapest, the first Eastern European capital to enter the Copenhagenize index of the world's 20 most bicycle-friendly cities.

In Transylvania, a region of central Romania praised by Britain's Prince Charles for its stunning nature and unique rural traditions, bicycle touring is already used as a tool for sustainable development.

"Cycle tourists respect nature, they like to stay in guest houses and eat local produce like honey, jam and cheese which is a key support for the local economy," Cristi Gherghiceanu, director of the Adept Foundation told AFP.

With the help of Norway, Switzerland and the European Outdoor Conservation Association, Adept is currently building a 100-kilometre mountain bike trail linking up Romanian medieval villages, many of them listed as UNESCO World heritage sites.