News & Community

Cameo: Marla Streb

We talk to the mountain bike champion and owner of Handlebar Cafe.

For people who don’t follow the sport of mountain biking, can you go toot your own horn?
Ha! Sure. I am a two-time world champion, and I won a world cup. And then I’ve also won the X-Games, [competing in] downhill [racing], which is kind of like a downhill ski race, where you start at the top and you end at the bottom and you’re actually by yourself and you race the clock. But I pretty much did every style of cycling event. I raced BMX. I raced road. There are probably 20 styles of mountain biking alone and you add all the regular road riding, so there’s lots of different types of racing. So I won my share of races, but I had a long career—16 years—as a paid professional athlete traveling the world.

I don’t think people realize that there is the variety there is. Why did you like downhill so much?
I started late. I was about 28 when I turned pro. That’s relatively old, compared to the others. I was just a regular student. I went to graduate school. But I didn’t have a big sports background like the other cross-country racers, so I didn’t have that deep base of training. And I didn’t, honestly, have a great VO2 max [Ed note: a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use], so my dream was to be an Olympic-level cross-country racer because I actually prefer the endurance style of climbing up and down the mountains, but my body was not capable of doing that. I was able to get on the podium in national events but I never had a chance in the world-class events. But right around the early ’90s, the sport of downhill was really taking off, too. It was much easier for me to do well in downhill for two reasons. I’m not really afraid of speed, and it’s not as contingent on a different kind of fitness. Technique is more important than your fitness in downhill. So I was able to win those races pretty early in my career, and I was winning pretty big races.

So how fast do you go in downhill?
I probably got up to about 70 or 80 miles per hour. I think I reached my top speed on the ice-covered bobsled track in Cortina, Italy, which is crazy because we had to have spiked tires and I had to duck for the low awnings. If you didn’t duck at the perfect time, you’d be decapitated, basically. So it was pretty crazy in retrospect, now that I think about it.

You mentioned that you don’t really scare easily.
Not from speed.

Can you recall some of your worst falls and injuries?
There are so many. In the beginning, I was so obsessed with this sport and succeeding that I would just ignore my injuries. And a lot of the injuries were caused because I was already recovering from another injury. But I remember the first year of racing, I broke my right collarbone six times in one year. And finally, I just asked the doctor, I said, “Take it out. It’s not doing me any good.” So he said, “Okay.” So he took it out and now it’s the greatest thing in the world because my shoulder collapses. I can fold it in. So when I fall, I always fall on my right and roll on the right side and I never break anything anymore on that side.

But the most painful injury, if you want to talk about injuries, I scratched my cornea once. This was filming. I was featured in an IMAX movie called Top Speed and putting on the motorcycle leathers—it’s so crazy—I just accidentally bent into the Velcro on the sleeve and scratched my cornea, and I had to go to the hospital. It’s definitely strange when you think about it. A little scratched cornea—easily the worst pain. Except for giving birth to children. That was worse. I have two kids, that was worse.

I know you’re very involved with organizations such as Bike Maryland that advocate for increased bike infrastructure in Baltimore, and that you ride with your kids in the city all the time. What’s scarier: mountain biking or riding on the street in Baltimore?
Well, that’s a good question and I used to joke that riding on the streets is more dangerous. Now that I know my techniques and now that I understand how to ride really well off-road, I would say, for me, maybe more dangerous to ride on the streets. Because I rarely fall on my mountain bike anymore and I often joke that the trees never move whereas, on the road, you can’t control that car running a red light. And no matter how good you are, you can’t control someone if they’re texting and putting their foot on the gas. I got hit once, and I believe she was texting. I shouldn’t probably talk too much about it, but she was making a right on red. And you know how some people just roll? They kind of stop and they do it every day to go to work. She was just making a right on red with very little pause and I was coming down a bike lane perfectly legal but it was a contra bike lane, which means that it goes on the left side of the road. But I got hit and someone got killed last year. It’s basically from people not paying attention, so there is a certain amount of danger. You know, half the time, statistically, it’s the cyclist’s fault because they’re riding on a road that has unnecessarily high speeds and they didn’t pick the best route. Or they’re breaking the law. So I also work for Bike Maryland teaching bike safety. Half the time you see cyclists running red lights and that’s how you get hurt. But if you’re following the law, I really believe that it’s not all that dangerous. Even in a car. there’s a certain amount of danger. I think it’s about the same. If you’re riding vigilantly, riding on the proper streets, et cetera, et cetera.

What do think Baltimore needs to have a really safe, robust, operational bike infrastructure?
Well, we need connectivity, bike lanes that don’t just stop. You know, they’re trying. We need infrastructure that’s designed by people that understand cycling and the dynamics of cycling behavior. So good bike lanes for cyclists that aren’t going to get filled with leaves or that cyclists won’t use because they’re afraid of the debris or the car doors opening on them. And you don’t want to ride on Northern Parkway, necessarily, or streets that are really fast. There are lots of statistics about getting hit by a car moving over 35 miles per hours is pretty dangerous. If they’re going under [35 miles per hour] you have a 90 percent chance of being fine but over 35 it actually becomes inverted, so a 90 percent chance of being really hurt or dying.

And they’re doing a good job because more and more, there are lanes popping up out of nowhere. It’s great. Compared to when I was here commuting to graduate school in the ’90s, there were almost no bike lanes. So it’s really come a long way and you see people out there year-round now. The camaraderie, the more cyclists there are out there, the safer it will be because drivers will just get used to seeing cyclists.

I take my kids to school by bike every morning. We have a cargo bike so we can do it year-round and they’re warm inside this little container. And half the people I see on the roads every morning—I see the same cars every morning because we go at the same time—are parents driving their kids to school. We kind of have a little competition with the other parents. I almost always beat them to the school, just because of the traffic. And they just can’t believe it. They’re like, “Ugh!” Soon they’ll figure it.

How many bikes do you have?
I probably have maybe 30. And I have a lot of helmets, over 40 or 50 helmets. And I always tell the kids that I’m proud of my helmets, you know? A lot of kids think it’s not cool to wear helmets.

Where do you go around here if you want to do some trail riding?
I go to Lake Roland Park. That has some fun little trails. It’s a great little park. There’s also Druid Hill, which has some trails, they have paved and dirt trails. Some of the best riding in the whole state would be Patapsco [State Park] and Loch Raven Reservoir. I think Patapsco is as good as it gets, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve traveled all around the world and it’s probably one of the reasons I’m able to live here. And then there’s Loch Raven Reservoir, which I can ride to. I prefer to ride to the trails and not drive because I’m just a little bit of a tree-hugger.

You and your husband have been working on opening a bike shop/restaurant in Fells Point called Handlebar Cafe. What’s the status?
It’s really exciting because a bicycle cafe is the kind of business a retired pro cyclist and a bartender can do together. We’ve been scheming this for about 10 years and we moved to Baltimore because I thought that Baltimore was just ready for this big [cycling] movement. And we think that this is just going to rally everybody together and it’s a nice place where everyone can meet, all the cyclists. Even the bike shops we are trying to partner with. It helps to have more. We’re not necessarily a bike shop so much as a cafe. So it can be a nice meeting place for all cyclists. It’s really exciting. The city is changing. You can see it changing for the better. That’s why we moved here.

What’s the elevator pitch for those not familiar with the idea?
It’s basically an amalgam between a cafe and a bicycle shop. So there’s a bicycle shop inside the cafe and you can buy or get your bike fixed there. You can buy a new bike. You can get advice, encouragement. You can bring your bike in, hang it up and just have coffee if you want. You don’t even have to go to the bike shop. Or you can have beer and pizza. We’ll deliver pizza and beer by bike, as well, within about a mile square radius. You know, it’s a place for everybody. It’s not necessarily for cyclists. There’s a little pizza place that’s owned by an ex-skateboarder [Johnny Rad’s near Patterson Park] and not everyone who goes there is a skateboarder. But it’s a really fun vibe. We want to liven up that area. It’s kind of like the last little spot between Fells Point and Harbor East that hasn’t been gentrified.

It’s in between Fleet and Eastern, right?
Yeah. And we’re right on the bike lane and we’re on the Charm City Circulator route. So it’s a really good location. People thought we were crazy when we first bought the building but the location is awesome. It’s right between the Perkins Homes projects and the water and so we really want to connect with that community, or with what’s left of that community because they’re phasing it out, and engage the kids. You know, I’ve done a lot of workshops for Bike Maryland, and we’re going to try to engage them and get the kids not riding around without helmets and on the wrong side of the street. I can tie that in. We do have Bike Maryland upstairs as one of our tenants, and we also have the barre studio upstairs. So we’ll have a lot activity. We’ll have a lot of people coming up and down all day long. Probably mostly women, honestly. But I want this to be really women friendly, family-friendly. And we’ll have rides. We’ll have full moon rides for women and rides for everybody and all kinds of events.

So what’s your target opening date?
Let’s just say this spring, to be safe.