“Gravity goddess” Marla Streb is pulled back to Baltimore
Published: April 20, 2011
About 20 years ago, Marla Streb lost her job as a bike messenger for Magic Messengers in Baltimore. “They told me it was because I was getting hit by too many cars,” she recalls. But she suspects one car in particular—the Baltimore Police commissioner’s limousine, which she says ran her into a parking meter the day before she was let go—was the clincher.
Streb had liked the job—she uses words like “liberating,” “exhilarating,” and “rebellious” when recalling her short-lived bike-messengering days. But soon thereafter she left Baltimore and her planned career as a scientist, building on her UMBC master’s degree in marine biology. Instead, starting in 1993, she found a more lucrative, adventurous, and death-defying way to pedal for pay: as a professional mountain-bike racer.
She became a world-class contender in single-track downhill—in which, just as in downhill ski-racing, “you start at the top of a mountain and they time you as you go down, one at a time, a very treacherous course with jumps, and you get to the bottom in about five minutes,” she says. In her 16-year career, she won three national and two world championships, broke 24 bones, and wrote two books about it—a training guide and a memoir, Downhill: The Life Story of a Gravity Goddess.
Streb, now 45 with two daughters, returned earlier this year to Baltimore, her hometown and occasional base during her professional career, which ended about two years ago. She and her husband, Mark Fitzgerald, plan to open a café here, and have been trying to nail down the venue.
“We are hoping to open up a bike-themed café with indoor, unlimited free parking, possibly selling retail bikes, and a full liquor license,” Streb explains. “We want to do fresh-roasted coffee in the morning and then stay open all the way into the nighttime. We’re still looking for a property—we’re under contract for one, but it’s a bumpy road.”
In the meantime, Streb is working as a “media-trix,” handling web content and online social media for her longtime sponsor Team LUNA Chix, a project of the Clif Bar energy-bar company, as well as LUNA Sport, a related clothing line. “I’ve been sort of pseudo-retired for the last year,” she says, after having spent the prior year and a half working full time in California as the LUNA Chix Pro Team’s manager and webmaster. “I just couldn’t handle the office job. It’s really hard, after all those years, to go back to an office,” she explains, “especially when you’ve been a pro athlete traveling the world.”
Streb also tends to a company, Streb Trail Systems (STS), that she and her husband founded in the mid-2000s in Costa Rica. It designs mountain-bike trails for resorts and communities. “We created a nice trail system in Puerto Rico for a nature park called Toro Verde,” she explains. Its first U.S. project has been here in Maryland, putting together a trail plan for Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmittsburg.
In the two months since Streb returned to Baltimore, she’s also been laying the groundwork for becoming a local bike advocate. “I’m meeting with city planners,” she says, “because I really want to improve on the bike-ability of this city.” She’s happy to see that there are bike lanes on some of the city’s main thoroughfares, and finds her Fells Point neighborhood is suitably bike-friendly, but she believes much more can be done to accommodate and promote bike-based city living.
“If more and more people see a mom riding her kids,” as they see Streb do, using her “cargo bike”—an extra-long bicycle with a bucket up front, big enough for two kids and a lot of groceries—“then they’re going to think about doing it themselves. It’s a snowball effect. And as more people do it, the city will need to just create space for it [on the streets]. Cyclists are paying the same taxes the drivers are paying, except what cyclists are doing is greener and it’s healthier. I’d love to do anything I can do to help people understand.”
Returning to Baltimore, Streb says, is “just full circle. It’s where I met my husband 20-some years ago, and my family’s from here. And it’s important for the kids to be near family. Now that I’m not trying to race professionally, I think it’s working out really well for us.”
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