It's all downhill for Marla Streb

'Mountain biking saved my life,' says the hard-charging pro

Health & Fitness

December 21, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

This isn't how a 38-year-old woman is supposed to ride a bicycle. Watching Marla Streb pedal through downtown Baltimore reminds you more of a whale at play in open ocean.

Every now and then -- taking deliberate aim at that manhole-cover mogul on Guilford Avenue, hopping the curb in front of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel -- she feels this urge to breach, to leave solid pavement behind and go airborne.

Maybe it's a way of keeping in touch with her Inner Mammal.

Well, go free Willy if you want, but there's no need to liberate Marla Streb. She turned herself loose a long time ago.

"Mountain biking saved my life," says Streb as she cranks around the Inner Harbor waterfront, halfway into a short spin that will end at Butcher's Hill. "I was on the path to self-destruction."

Do you believe in extreme-sport fairy tales?

Once upon a time, there was a disenchanted biologist, who, at the geezerly age of 28, decided to become a professional mountain biker, the career-move equivalent of running away to join the circus.

That was 1993. Streb went on to more than establish a foothold on the international biking circuit. She has cracked the $100,000 barrier in annual earnings and sponsorship money, is a member of Cliff Bar's "Luna Chix" female racing team, and was the subject of a July 2000 Outside magazine cover story. That article featured an art-quality photo of her biking nude, which not only raised her profile, but blew the doors off many a male reader's maximum heart rate.

Streb finished the 2003 World Cup season ranked fourth in women's downhill, tops among American racers. She has spent much of this fall and winter on the road promoting a just-released autobiography, the bodaciously titled Downhill: The Life Story of a Gravity Goddess (Plum Books, $14).

"I love not knowing what's around the corner," Streb says of her gypsy-athlete existence. "I've always been that way. Routine makes me feel like life is going by too quickly."

Tempted fate

She grew up routinely in Glen Arm (Dad was an engineer, Mom a housewife) sandwiched between three brothers; she was a tomboy who studied classical piano at Peabody Institute for nine years but liked to get her adrenal glands pumping by playing field hockey and skateboarding.

"I remember being in a lot of uncomfortable positions as a kid," says younger brother Chris, now 32, who tagged along on Marla's adventures.

Streb was in Baltimore for a book signing that qualified as something more than a homecoming. It's a return to the scene of her crime. Gravity Goddess has a mug shot on file here, a souvenir from those wild-child days.

Tragedy propelled her down that rocky road toward self-destruction. During her freshman year at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, her older brother Mark died. He was killed by a drunken driver while serving with the Peace Corps in Nigeria.

Marla had difficulty handling that sudden death. "It caused me to be rebellious," she recalls, chuckling, "more so than the usual recovering Catholic."

She fell into a string of quickie relationships. She binge-drank her way through college and graduate school. She eventually went off the tempt-fate deep end and developed an odd habit of climbing public structures, often while fueled by alcohol.

One of her boldest capers entailed slipping into a building site near the Inner Harbor and scaling a 40-story-high construction crane. It offered great views of the city, not to mention all those swirling-light police cars.

Streb's trespassing charge earned her a night in jail, but more hard living flashed by before she finally got her bearings.

Help came in the blocky form of Mark Fitzgerald, a bartender she met in 1989 while moonlighting during graduate school as a cocktail waitress at the now-defunct Water Street Exchange. The two bonded. On a purely-platonic trip they made to Europe that summer, Fitzgerald introduced Streb to cycling. She liked it. The freedom. The physical release. The mindless reverie of it all.

After earning her master's degree at the University of Maryland, she briefly did chromosome research at Duke University, then moved on to Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, where she studied AIDS-infected cells in brain tissue. Impressive resume, but "I was more happy on my bike than in the job," says Streb.

She started hanging with some serious off-road-biking dudes, then left them in the dust, making a quick transition from amateur to semi-pro to pro racing.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald joined her in California. He has become her boyfriend, road manager, Guy Friday and all-around "secret weapon." They now live outside San Francisco in a house that has a mini-biking course in the back yard designed by Streb. One of the highlights is a jump over a pit filled with broken glass.

Life's bumps

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