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 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."