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New Expression – Baltimore’s Bike Café

Marla Streb builds a bike hub in Baltimore

There's only one thing missing here. The Handlebar Café, Baltimore's new bike-themed bar/café/bike shop, is abuzz: A celebrity chef spins pizza dough in the air near a wood-burning oven. A patron tips back an IPA, chatting over the concrete bar with the mechanic wrenching on his bike. Commuters roll in, hang their steeds on the wall and order pour-over coffees. A bike messenger heads out to deliver burritos somewhere in Fell's Point.

The only thing missing from this scene? The boss.

Marla Streb is in Montezuma, Costa Rica, fixing up a house in the jungle with her husband and kids. Never mind that it's their first summer in business. She and her husband, Mark Fitzgerald, have bet their life savings on opening a bicycle-centric community hub that promises to change Baltimore's riding culture. But it's summer, and for them that means glamping in Costa Rica–no car, no screens, sporadic electricity and occasional water outages. Most folks recall that Streb is a Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee who, in a 16-year pro racing career, racked up a litany of badass titles: X Games champion, a UCI World Cup Downhill winner, Singlespeed World Champion (twice) and U.S. National Downhill Championship (thrice). They remember her nude-on-a-Yeti poster, somehow revealing little more than 50-horsepower quads and the requisite SS World Champ tattoo branded upon her right cheek. They might recall her suspended between ramp and water on the Downieville Classic river jump with a rag doll strapped to her chest.

Fewer people, though, know Marla, now 51, has a master's degree in marine-estuarine environmental science. Or that she worked as a cytogeneticist at Duke University and as a neuropharmacologist at Scripps Research Institute. Or that she's authored two books.  And those who really know her say that all evidence to the contrary, Marla Streb is at heart an introvert. "She's basically a shy person," says Mark, her husband and partner of 26 years. "On a mountain bike she found expression." Marla admits, yeah, she was "painfully" shy. "Excessive alcohol saved me from that problem," she says. "So, in a way, biking saved me from a lifetime of alcoholism."

These days you can find her at the crossroads of badass and good mother, pedaling 9-year-old Nico and 6-year-old Kiki around Baltimore on a cargo bike and sipping boxed wine at dinner. She still hammers on a mountain bike (Mark doesn't even try to keep up). But now her vehicles for expression are teaching commuter workshops to adults and bike-safety classes to underprivileged kids. She also leads social rides, handles marketing and PR for the Luna Pro Team and works part-time for Bike Maryland, a nonprofit aiming to make Maryland bike friendlier. The statewide nonprofit advocacy group will have a new office in the Handlebar Café, which is proving to be Marla's pièce de résistance, a constellation of all her interests. "This business is a way for her to continue expressing herself," Mark says.

The café has been a long expression in the making, the culmination of lifestyle and career decisions that embody the trail less taken. Mark and Marla rewrote the rules. She was the breadwinner, earning a paycheck by hurtling downhill, a goddess on wheels and a magnet for sponsors. He managed her career, welded bike frames that fit her and renovated houses and sailboats between races. They moved to Costa Rica and started a trail-building business. Kids weren't part of the plan. Then her hormones spoke. Nine months pregnant, resembling a grape on a toothpick, she popped barefooted wheelies in the jungle. The recession hit. They moved to Northern California. She took an office job. He was a stay-at-home dad. Both chafed. Her mother began suffering from Parkinson's. To help her, they moved to Baltimore, back to the place where they met in the '90s, an overeducated cocktail waitress and an overqualified bartender with a degree from Boston College.

Back in the Charm City, they shared the shock of re-entry.

"As much as we love Baltimore," Mark says, "it's not a great urban cycling town."

They cooked up ways to make it so. There should be a gathering spot for the urban bike tribe with caffeine and alcohol. It needed plenty of bike parking, including indoor spots for roadies who don't ride with U-locks. And food–Neapolitan-style pizza and burritos like the ones they ate in San Francisco's Mission District–that would draw in the people on the fringe, maybe even non-cyclists who just wanted a cool place to gather and dine. It would be open all day, serve really good coffee and a range of beers. And sell Marla-approved gear from brands she raced for, or "were really nice to me."

They found an empty building in Fells Point, a gritty neighborhood already in the midst of gentrification. Reaching the construction starting line took several years of wrestling with city building codes, project delays, sketchy contractors and precarious grants and mortgages. On the design, they went big and bold: 65 indoor bike-parking spots, slots in the bar where you can dock your bike and use your saddle as a barstool, a gigantic outdoor mural that brightened a formerly crime-riddled block. Out front, they created the city's first 'parklet' in an enterprise zone, transforming car parking spaces into a pocket park.

The Handlebar's secret sauce will likely be its menu, attracting and binding a community with the magic of food and libations. They hired a ringer: Executive chef Chris Marquis, whose Maryland crab-spiked gumbo was featured on Guy Fieri's Food Network show, "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," when Marquis was executive chef of Baltimore's Slainte Irish Pub. In the shop, head mechanic Kelly Barrett brings years of experience from touring on the racing circuit as one of Marla's mechanics.

For 10 years, Baltimore's mayor posted black and white signs with one word–BELIEVE–all over the city, in a campaign to get people to care about their neighborhoods and invest in making them better. That same ethos drives Marla, who isn't particularly risk-averse in the first place, to bet everything–reputation, personal savings, kids' college tuition–on a gamble that could help make her city a safer and better place for her kids to ride a bike.

"It's scary, but it feels so good," she writes from Costa Rica, in an email she emerged from the jungle to send. She believes it will bring unlikely people together because almost everyone, regardless of age, gender, background or socioeconomic status, can relate to riding a bike. "So this feels quite a bit more fulfilling than winning some random bike race."

The café’s soft launch went well enough that Marla found no reason to cancel her family's annual trip to Costa Rica. It's been a long, hard climb to get this far, but now that the café is gaining momentum, she has reason to believe that it's all downhill from here.