Carol Agay loved the retro-style wire bike basket that came with her new yellow cruiser, except that her keys and cellphone kept falling through its holes. So the Costa Mesa resident came up with a fashionable but practical solution: a basket liner that kept her items secure while she was riding.
And she included drawstring handles so that off the bike, the liner could be transformed into a handy tote.
So many female bicyclists stopped her to ask about the invention that Agay transformed it, again, into something else: a business.
Her Couture Cruiser liners are now sold in about 200 stores nationwide, including the Dick's Sporting Goods' chain and online at Target.com.
The liners — which come in bright florals, faux leopard fur and other designs — appeal to cyclists looking for fashionable and functional gear for casual commuting, shopping trips and social rides.
This movement, dubbed urban cycling by some, is in contrast to hard-core road cycling, with its spandex outfits, and rugged mountain biking, with its own gear and garb. Urban cycling has gained in popularity as a practical, more social alternative to more sport-centric bicycling.
"That's predominately where the growth is coming from," said Agay, whose business is still small. She has no employees and uses local sewing contractors to make the liner/bags, which retail for about $40.
As laid-back as urban cycling is, it has spawned its own gear and garb — businesses such as Agay's have sprung up to take advantage of the trend. Their creations are sold in shops such as Flying Pigeon in Highland Park, which also sells bikes from China and the Netherlands.
The attire looks like everyday clothing, with some alterations — such as articulated knees or an absence of seams in the seating area — to make it more bike friendly.
"It allows you to maintain an identity on your bike without having to be subsumed by the sporting image or aggressive-commuter image," said Josef Bray-Ali, who owns the 2-year-old Flying Pigeon with his brother, Adam.
Two Los Angeles clothing companies, Swrve and Shifty, cater to urban cyclists.
Swrve's $100 jeans feature articulated knees, a bit of spandex for a slight stretch and a waist that is higher in the back to keep cyclists covered. Shifty founder Jen Diamond of Echo Park makes a line of clothing for women that includes stretchy dresses and halter-style tops with reflective ribbon ties and belts.
It's a contrast to the tight, logo-emblazoned jerseys worn for serious fitness training.
"You don't have to change out of your bike jersey to feel comfortable in a restaurant," said Diamond, who has no employees but collaborates on designs with two friends. Her tops sell for $65 online as well as at the Flying Pigeon and Orange 20 Bikes in Los Angeles.
Urban cycling accounts for a small part of the U.S. bicycle market. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Assn., the category of comfort bikes — which have softer saddles, a more upright seating position and easier gearing than traditional mountain bikes — makes up about 10% of sales.
Europe has a more entrenched urban cycling culture, partly because many U.S. cities are not casual-biking friendly.
But there are encouraging signs for businesses in the U.S. that go after the urban cycling market. Last month, Los Angeles released a draft bicycle plan that would increase the city's bikeways — including designated paths and lanes — to more than 1,630 miles in the next five years from the existing 339 miles.
Some bicycling groups, including Long Beach Cyclists, now offer free valet services to keep bicycles safe at concerts and other events.
Dan Bon, chief executive of Nirve — a 13-employee company in Huntington Beach that designs, makes and sells bikes used for urban cycling — said consumers dedicated to this kind of alternative transportation can help grow a more bike-friendly atmosphere in cities.
"You are seeing the little green shoots of that now," Bon said.