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
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."