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.

 

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.

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."

THE GIFTED RACERS Streb aims to beat have dominated the sport from the moment they began competing. Giove and Leigh Donovan, both 28, and France's Anne-Caroline Chausson, 22, entered downhilling after careers in other speed games like ski racing and BMX. The nearly supernatural Chausson will be Streb's toughest opponent, considering that she's won the world championships each of the last four years, and that her peers mean it as a compliment when they say she races like a man. But in 1999, Streb beat Chausson twice in World Cup qualifying runs.

Last August Streb put it all together—the nerve, the gray matter, the equipment—against the rest of the U.S. field in her Chausson-like victory at the NORBA finals at Mount Snow. The crux of the course was a cascade of sharp-edged, rain-slicked granite steps that could be ridden one of two ways: the right-hand line, which was longer and featured relatively tame one-foot drop-offs, or the more direct left-hand line, which consisted of bone-threatening, three-foot drops. To the cheers of a packed gallery, Streb alone went left. She skidded her rear tire over the rocks, held on, and nailed the line. In a sport in which the times are measured in hundredths of a second, she beat Giove, who took second, by 20 ticks of the clock. "I thought it was the hardest course I'd ever ridden," recalls Donovan, a nine-year pro who in her first season took third in a World Cup race. (The same feat took Streb four years.) "Marla's got major huevos."

True, but Streb also doesn't have any other choice in the matter. "I lack talent for downhilling and I admit it," she says. "A lot of ability in this sport comes from picking up rhythm and agility when you're young. Sometimes you need to be as agile as a ballerina. Let's just say you don't want to see me dance."

Streb's only real training was growing up alongside four brothers—three older and one younger—in a rangy woodland beyond the Baltimore suburbs. She has always played by boys' rules. Her dad worked as a Department of Energy bureaucrat, commuting 90 minutes each way to D.C., and her mom was a housewife who gave the kids a long leash. She and her brothers rode homemade luges, explored caves, and jumped from train trestles into tree branches. Marla always kept up. "My parents think I lack an enzyme that makes you excited," she says. "Some women get excited when the curtains match their wallpaper. The only time I'd ever really get excited was if something was almost death-defying."

Even so, Streb didn't fit the tomboy stereotype—or any other. When she was four she sat down at the family piano and plunked out a shockingly respectable rendition of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." (As it turns out, she has perfect pitch.) At an early age she announced her desire to become a surgeon, and would recover dead possums and groundhogs in order to perform amateur autopsies. "We also had a couple of little surgeries on our cats," she says. "They were fine."

The Strebs enrolled their Renaissance girl in Catholic school and Baltimore's Peabody Institute, where for nine years she took classical piano lessons. She breezed through high school, balancing her studies with music and field hockey. In 1983 she enrolled at Mount Saint Mary's College in north-central Maryland and made life look just as easy. "Anything Marla touched turned to gold," says Kathleen Tubridy, Streb's college roommate for several years. "She tried out for soccer and boom, she was starting. We'd go out for full-moon skateboard rides and she'd come back to the dorm, study all night, then ace an exam."

But when she was still a freshman, Streb's charmed life took a hit. Her next-oldest brother, Mark, who had been her closest family confederate, died in a bus crash while working for the Peace Corps in Niger. Streb started drinking hard, smashing windows on campus, and swinging between buildings on extension cords she'd tethered to overhead pipes. "I'd wake up the next day with my hands sliced and blood all over myself," she says. "I didn't know what it was all about, but I couldn't speak of my brother's death. I couldn't say one sentence about it. It took me about ten years to get past that."

Despite this jarring loss and its aftermath, Streb continued to do well in school. She graduated in 1987 with a biology-chemistry double major and then dived into a four-year master's program in marine biology at the University of Maryland, which she polished off in under three. One of her jobs during graduate school was waitressing at Water Street Exchange, a Baltimore bar, where she met Fitzgerald, a quick-witted bartender who had earned a sociology degree from the University of Massachusetts in three years. They played racquetball, talked about bikes—Streb commuted several hours each way to classes—and drank. "When we met we were very deep into our partying phases," Streb recalls. "We'd go out, get a bottle of tequila, and throw the cap out the window. I mean, get a bottle of tequila and what are you going to do with the cap?"

Streb was a large-living high achiever who was uncertain of her direction. When Fitzgerald asked her to join him on a ten-week bicycle tour of Europe, she said yes. Riding a loaded bike, Streb routinely dropped Fitzgerald in the Alps. She also kept the relationship platonic. "We were camping in the same tent and everything," Streb recalls. "That was pretty difficult for him."

Something about spending so much time on a bike clicked for Streb and when they returned to Baltimore she extended her two-wheel odyssey, taking a job as a bike messenger. It was a short-lived career that ended promptly after she collided with the police chief's car. She fell back on science and in 1991 went to work as a cytogeneticist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, but she had difficulty coping with the conservative social climate down South. To make things worse, she became ill with some mysterious malady. "I had all these tests done. The doctor thought I had a brain tumor, but he didn't really know what it was. I was depressed. It was a pretty bad time."

Matters came to a head in a darkly absurd medical misadventure. "I sort of got diagnosed with AIDS," Streb says. "I figured life could end anytime, so Mark and I packed our bags and just started driving."

She didn't learn for several weeks that the diagnosis was wrong. But by then she'd already burned down her life and bolted. She and Fitzgerald rambled south and west for six months in a white 1971 VW bus that boasted blue polka-dots and a cow skull bolted to the front end. Dirt poor, they'd starve themselves for days and then spend hours gorging at all-you-can-eat buffets. When they reached Las Vegas, they split up. "After our trip I needed to work and get away from him," Streb says. She washed up in San Diego, where the lifestyle was laid-back and her oldest brother, John, worked as a real estate agent. Fitzgerald went to Durango, Colorado, a spot he'd been eyeing because it was small and yet had good coffee and the Sunday New York Times. He was sure he'd get Streb back: "I knew that I loved her, but I thought, let her have her space there. I figured that a year of writing letters would be better than going biceps-to-biceps with the beach guys."

Two days after arriving in San Diego, Streb got a job with the Scripps Research Institute and began spending her days isolating AIDS-infected cells in brain tissue. But she was just collecting a check; she lived for the weekend, when she'd enter local mountain-bike races. She started winning. Meanwhile, in Durango, Fitzgerald was watching women like Juli Furtado and Missy Giove rise to stardom. He'd mail Streb newspaper articles, along with notes saying, "You can beat them!" Fitzgerald recognized better than anyone—especially Streb herself—what would make her happy. He soon moved to San Diego to reinforce the point.

One spring day in 1994, sporting a mohawk, striped pants, and an attitude, Streb marched into the Los Angeles offices of Iron Horse Bicycles and announced that she was the next Missy Giove. Team brass signed her as a cross-country racer but decided after a photo shoot at a BMX track that downhilling might better suit her talents and temperament. "Marla tries this big jump," recalls Toby Henderson, the Iron Horse team captain at the time, "and she lands sideways, folds her front rim, and goes over the handlebars. When she gets up it's obvious that her collarbone is broken. But all she can say is, 'Put on a new wheel.' We figured, here's a wide-open girl."

IT'S AN ELYSIAN Northern California morning, with unsullied blue skies and warm, piney breezes. Streb and I are climbing trails in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais; I'm on a loaner hardtail and she's on a minimalistic single-speed: no disc brakes, no Drack, no rear suspension—no granny gear. "I love to do big, long rides on my single-speed," she says as we take a breather. "It's a wonderful, simple machine. All you can break is the chain. Did I tell you I'm the single-speed world champion? Oh, I didn't show you my tattoo!" She peels down her shorts, thrusting out her neatly graffitoed right flank. "See: '99 Single-Speed World Champion."

Streb's infamous uphill grinds are not your typical downhiller's regimen, but she can indulge because she's her own coach. Part of her routine is never saying no to a race: Last year she competed in 64 separate events in various disciplines—downhill, cyclocross, BMX, and cross-country. When she isn't racing, she isn't satisfied unless she's fit enough to crush her peers on five-hour death rides. "I don't mind suffering," she says. "I should be one of those Eco-Challenge people—I think I'd do pretty well at just suffering for hours and hours and hours. It's intriguing to me."

We arrive at the day's big descent. Poised above a set of rocky, fire-road switchbacks, I notice a minefield of severe ruts at the first turn.

"So, what's the fastest way through?"

"Relax your upper body and keep your head up," she suggests. "Let go of the brakes and let your body take over."

"No brakes," I say, reminding myself that this is a woman who goaded one of her disciples to jump something called The Pit of Glass that she constructed in her backyard, only to watch him face-plant and end up with multiple lacerations and a mouthful of poison oak.

She pushes off, sprinting toward the first turn with the leg-churning urgency you'd expect at a finish line, and leans toward the inside. She drifts sideways across the fire road in a graceful, deliberate slide that's every bit as much Fred Astaire as Jeff Gordon. Despite what she says, Streb can dance.

"Marla's much more technical than she used to be," says Missy Giove. "Four years ago I would wince as she came by. 'Don't hurt yourself,' I would think. I mean, she always had the guts. She developed the skill as she went along."

She's done it by working harder than her competitors. When Streb turned pro, she renounced alcohol and cut off friends and every other distraction. "Mark said I was pretty hard to live with for a year," says Streb. "Everything was racing, racing, racing. Now I try to balance it a little better, be a little more normal. If I can."

Even though Iron Horse wanted Streb to race downhill during her rookie year, she competed in cross-country as well. But she was forced to reckon with her genetic inheritance. "I had a coach who had me take a VO2-max test, and it turned out very average," Streb says mournfully. "She said, 'Oh, well, you can always become a downhiller.' That just devastated me. I knew there was probably no way in hell I was going to be world champion in cross-country."

The problem was that she didn't feel like a downhiller. "For some reason cross-country attracts more educated people," Streb observes. "There's something more respectable about it, you have to admit. Right? You're climbing a mountain, you're achieving. It takes a lot of character. In downhill the mind-set is bombing down a hill and almost devastating the trails behind you. It's always, 'Dude, how cool is that jump! Oh, dude!' I enjoy riding, but I don't need to talk about 'rad jumps' all day."

She spent her first couple of World Cup seasons dwelling in the cellar of the top 20. (She left Iron Horse for Team Marin in 1995, and switched to Yeti two years ago.) By 1997 she'd clawed her way into the top ten, partly because she kept improving and partly because she was a genius at winning ugly—or trying to. At a World Cup race in South Africa, for instance, she crashed and broke an ankle in her qualifying run. "My sponsor sent me to Africa, and I wasn't going to not race," she recalls. "I didn't tell anyone it was broken. I could feel it crunching around if I tried to walk. I had to tape my foot to the pedal." Streb took third—her best result to date—and had to be carried to the podium.

Even when she isn't injured, Streb has a connoisseur's appreciation for the self-abusive cruelty of downhill racing. "It's an all-body effort," she explains. "About halfway through a race the lactic acid snowballs, and it's almost like your eyes are rolling into the back of your head. By the end of the race it's all you can do to just hold on. It's searing and excruciating. I've seen people pass out. Throw up. Sometimes they can't even stop because they've used up all their strength. You always see people run into the wall at the finish line."

Toward the end of our ride, I find Streb waiting at a nondescript spot where, if you look closely, you can see a rough side trail. "Unsavory-looking, isn't it?" she says. In addition to the 18 hours a week she spends riding and lifting weights, Streb builds her own trails—this one is illegal—laboring with shovel and pickax for six hours at a stretch. I look at her homemade berms and jumps and can see the determination scratched in the dirt. Streb may represent some romantic notion that, given the chance, any desk-jockey could become a pro athlete, but I've seen the sweaty side of her vocation, and I want no part of it. I certainly don't want any part of this "trail." She looks up with an obsessive stare: "I want to create the nastiest terrain possible and then make myself ride it over and over until I'm immune to it."

DOWN AT THE DOCKS in Sausalito, on a rare afternoon without a workout, Streb and Fitzgerald are showing me around the tight, musty cabin of their sailboat, christened Indifference. The dual-mast, steel-hulled ketch pulls hard against its moorings, like a getaway car revving its engine.

They bought it used last year for $50,000, figuring that when Streb's bike-racing days end, the freedom she's cultivated won't have to. They intend to take the money she's been socking away and flee permanently, to open waters. "We'd like to see the world by sailing," she says. "There's no plan in terms of where we'll go. Thus the name."

Streb admitted to me earlier that she had worried about the commitment such a plan represents, just as she worries about any kind of emotional attachment. "I don't want to get married," she told me. "I gave so much of myself to my brother, and it all got taken away. After that, I've never let any boys get completely into my heart, not even Mark. I'm totally cruel, huh?"

You'd think such a deep-seated fear of being trapped would pose a problem for someone intending to live on a boat for 20 years. "I thought, 'How stir-crazy am I going to go?'" she says. But on a cruise with Fitzgerald down the California coast last winter, she realized that life at sea could be compatible with the Streb way of life: "We were on the boat for five days straight, sailing it all night, taking two-hour shifts. That's when it started to get fun, sleeping in all the raingear with the hooks and the harnesses just dripping while the other person would be steering, at three in the morning, surrounded by 30-foot waves. That made up for the lack of get out and go."

With her retirement plans provisionally squared away, Streb remains focused on becoming world champion. But time is catching up with her, at least in her head. "When I first started racing I didn't care about crashing," she says. "But now it does come up in my thoughts, at night, and it makes me mad. I know that fear makes you slower. The idea is not to get injured at all, otherwise it's going to be a very depressing year. If you break your spine, or your neck, that's your life."

Such anxieties are not merely coming from within, according to Streb's younger brother, Chris, an ecological engineer back in Baltimore. "My parents have become a lot more protective than before my brother died," he told me. "Marla's feeling a lot of pressure from them for her not to break her neck. But she still has the spirit to say, 'Fuck it.' She's teaching my parents. Her attitude isn't rebellious; it's her saying, 'Look, I love you, but this is what I need to be happy.'"

Nightmares and fear are unlikely to slow down someone who has proven so adept at chasing her dreams. "I've never had a run that I thought was perfect," Streb says. "I've had runs I thought I probably couldn't do much better—maybe just a couple in my life. I've dreamed of jumping and floating for a long time. That's a really great dream, being able to jump for a long, long time, almost more than big air. Big air into flying. And not worrying about the landing."  

Andrew Tilin is a former senior editor of Outside.

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