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.

Jul 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

IT'S A RAINY SUNDAY MORNING at the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, an unruly knot of dirt roads gouged into the lush Gabilan Mountains 95 miles south of San Francisco. This noisy, rowdy, off-roading theme park derives its outlaw allure from both history and Hollywood. In 1947, the nearby town of Hollister was overrun by thousands of leather-and-denim-clad motorcyclists assembled for a Fourth of July rally. The "Invasion of Hollister" made a splash in Life magazine and went on to inspire the original biker flick, The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, who gave us the lasting icon of rider as rebel.

Hollister Hills also attracts another breed of two-wheeling yahoo, and today it's out in force. The ongoing downhill mountain-bike race is a mostly amateur, mostly male, thoroughly mud-spattered event, but there's a bona fide star (and sex symbol) on the scene, and she's about to make her entrance.

In a dirt lot at the base of the course, a van door slides open and Marla Streb, the world's sixth-ranked female downhiller, blinks slowly at the murky day. She's long and lean, with shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, smooth skin, and big brown doe eyes—which is to say, she doesn't look like a hellion. Surveying the pimply punks pulling wheelies in the rain, Streb sighs. "It's too bad that most pros don't come out for these little gatherings," she says, nursing a cloudy whey-protein-powder drink. "I fell in love with racing by doing these types of events, and I still love them."

Yesterday she practiced picking lines on her Honda XR400 motocross bike; then she spent the night camping in her ratty and molding 1983 Volkswagen Vanagon; and in a few minutes she'll power her Yeti dual-suspension team race bike down the course. Though Streb now makes more than $100,000 a year ("It's so much I could pinch myself"), she has no interest in forking out $55 for a motel room.

Today's race may be a backwoods affair with zero prize money, but Streb nevertheless lays out an overabundance of gear with the neat deliberation of a surgeon. It's a chance to experiment. She settles on insulated booties, oversize pedals, and a clear slicker, which she slips over her jersey. Hiking up her top layers, she stashes a pair of goggles against her rock-hard tummy. "I won't take them out until I race. A big key to downhilling in the rain is keeping your goggles perfectly dry and clean." She pats the lump. "A big key." Then she heads into the downpour.

A classically trained pianist, former biomedical researcher, and perennial workaholic, Streb is utterly out of step with a profession full of freewheeling jocks who love to coast—through life as well as down singletrack. For her, life's diversions are as strictly arranged as the periodic table: Going to the movies doubles as an opportunity to let her legs recover for two hours, and when cooking for herself she allots a maximum of five minutes to prepare her meals. (Think microwaved eggs.) She's got to be vigilant with her time because at 35, she should be long past obsolescence. Consider the roll call of injuries she's accumulated over her six seasons of racing: five broken collarbones, six concussions, two blown anterior cruciate ligaments, a broken ankle, 200 stitches, miscellaneous broken fingers, and a fused right thumb.

But for a woman who ostensibly has no business even competing in the sport, Streb is making a more than plausible run at the top. Last season, after years of steady progress up the ranks, she finally came into her own, winning the last race of the National Off-Road Bicycle Association series at Mount Snow, Vermont. This year she's got the world championships in her sights.

First, however, she has to run the sloppy course at Hollister Hills. Scores of local racers slog along in a spectacle that's equal parts Mad Max and the Crusades: Soldiers clad in shoulder pads and full-face helmets push 45-pound rigs with thickly welded joints toward the start, where they'll go off at one-minute intervals to race against the clock.

Most downhill races last four to six minutes—too long to sprint, too short to be considered an endurance effort. Thus, downhillers are forever flip-flopping over their lactate threshold, building up lactic acid until their muscles nearly seize up, dipping below that point just long enough to regain control, and then repeating until the finish line. In the midst of this metabolic masochism, the rider is pedaling along at highway speeds, launching off house-size jumps, or muscling through corners on a machine that, for women, is a third of the racer's weight.

Given her science background, perhaps nobody understands this aspect of the sport better than Streb, and yet she races with a style that can best be described as hurling bike and body down the mountain. It's as if there are two Marla Strebs: one with a cold, calculating, analytical bent, the other with an immutable gonzo jones for danger. Like most people hounded by contradictory voices, she's never sure which one is going to prevail, the thinking Dr. Jekyll or the heedless Ms. Hyde. What she needs, of course, is for both sides to cooperate in perfect harmony.

Waiting out on the course, I huddle with a dozen soaked spectators at Cafeteria Corner, so named for its tendency to make racers eat dirt. We hear the hollow rumble of tires, and 17-year-old Kathy Pruitt, who won silver in the junior division at last year's world championships in Sweden, crests the straightaway leading into the corner. She touches her brakes just before the turn and slices through, scrubbing off very little speed.

We're all waiting for Streb. "She'll probably destroy this course," says one kid. "I spy on her when she's changing," chimes in another. Then Streb comes into view, but something's wrong. She's skittering down the middle of the trail, riding out of the saddle like a demonic jackhammer. When she finally hits the brakes, her rear wheel skids sideways, forcing her to sprint back up to speed. By the time I skate through the mud down to the parking lot and find Streb in her camper, the results are crackling through a loudspeaker: She lost to Pruitt by three seconds.

"I started with a great, numb mind-set," she says matter-of-factly, doctoring a gash on her right knee with a salve called Brave Soldier. "It's almost like you're an animal again. You're going through the motions—you're not using the front of your brain. All the activity is in the cerebellum, the back, the primitive side. Today I learned not to wear booties." She shakes her head. "The second I couldn't clip in to my pedal, I started thinking too much and I crashed."

Chalk one up for Jekyll.