Marla Streb's Mind-Body Problem

What's a brilliant woman like this doing in a rough-and-tumble sport like downhill mountain-bike racing? Trying to think her way to the top of the winner's podium, that's what.

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STREB PURCHASED HER TINY HOUSE in Marin County, California, with earnings from a television commercial showing her repeatedly smacking into a tree to promote an energy bar. She'd originally done the stunt for spectators as a joke, but the story of her antics found its way into some mountain-bike magazine, and then a marketing guy got wind of it and wanted her to repeat it on camera. Over and over. The shooting took three days. "It was pretty painful," recalls Streb of her perfectly calibrated mind-body effort. "It was my down-payment-on-the-house ad."

The 700-square-foot bungalow is set on 1.5 acres at the end of a bad road near the bucolic town of San Geronimo, with a backyard that ramps up into a ridge etched with singletrack. Inside it's so chilly you can see your breath; Streb doesn't like to heat the place because she's always traveling. A poster from Shimano, the bicycle component company, serves as art; Hendrix and the Dead predominate in the CD collection, along with lots of classical; the houseplants are a crispy brown.

"Breakfast is ready," announces her boyfriend, Mark Fitzgerald. Already in her cycling togs, save for a pair of fuzzy tan slippers, Streb sits down at the tiny kitchen counter and plows through a slab of French toast. Fitzgerald lifts another piece onto her plate. "Marla can eat anything she wants," he says with a matronly shake of his head. "She burns it all off."

Fitzgerald, a 35-year-old brainy fireplug with a thick Boston accent, is "Mahla's" Jeeves. The two met a decade ago when he was tending bar in Baltimore, where, as Streb says, "Mark entertained me as a fellow recovering Catholic." Fitzgerald welds custom boat parts when he isn't attending to Streb, which means he doesn't do much welding. He shuttles her to the tops of mountains for practice runs, keeps their 52-foot sailboat shipshape, and makes sure she doesn't completely lose touch with the world beyond dirt and chain lube.

He sets the frying pan in the sink and switches on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

"Mark has an NPR addiction, which I'm now getting," says Streb, polishing off her second helping.

"This American Life is good," he says, soaping up the cookware.

"I like Science Friday," says Streb.

When it comes to reading, however, Fitzgerald is the nerd; the four volumes comprising Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples propped up on a wooden crate is definitely not hers. "I'm saving that kind of reading until we live on the sailboat," Streb says a little sheepishly.

"She's saving it for when she's a cripple," he quips.

"You be quiet!" she replies with a smirk. "There's going to be artificial limbs and joints."

Streb kicks off her slippers and grabs her bike shoes, and the three of us head out to the shed. Inside the beige wooden hut, seven bikes hang along one wall and at least a dozen helmets are fastened to another. There are wheels piled in a corner, rows of shoes, and boxes of parts everywhere. Streb could open a retail shop with this array, but there's a method to this mad plenitude: She's convinced that using the right equipment constitutes 30 percent of the winning formula, and each new part and tread design represents one more hypothesis for her to test.

Streb brushes up against a cardboard box sprouting wires; it catches her attention. "What's going on with the Drack?" she asks.

"Most of it is at the shop," Fitzgerald says.

The Drack data acquisition system is Streb's own little lab project, a $15,000 Italian-made bike computer of sorts that she bought for the 1999 season. She's the first pro woman to have one, though it's similar to a system used by Nicolas Vouilloz, the men's downhill world champion. Sensors on the bike bleem signals to a nondescript "black box" on the fork that stores mechanical movement as binary data, which can later be downloaded to a computer to analyze the demands of any given course. The Drack logs suspension travel, hydraulic brake pressure, and wheel speed. Last year Streb and Fitzgerald spent hours holed up in hotel rooms sorting out post-run feedback while the other racers were knocking back dollar beers. This season she'll be able to use the data to custom-tune her bike. There are skeptics, of course, including rival Missy Giove, the defending U.S. national champion: "It took Marla what, a whole season to figure out that computer? All I know is that if my tires aren't square and I have a chain, I can win."

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