Say hello to Mason B. Flagg of Worcester at the bike race in Fitchburg today. He'll be there on his grimy green 12-speed, not to race but to see friends and watch the action.
At 73, Flagg can do as much as any flashy European pro to inspire devotion to the sport. He's a living testament to the rejuvenating power of cycling.
An expert skier since his youth and a World War II combat veteran of the Army's skiing 10th Mountain Division, Flagg was turned on to cycling by his son when he was in his 50s. He broke two bike frames riding up to Mount Wachusett in sub-zero weather to ski but finds his 5-year-old Nishiki Performance Equipe is holding up fine.
So is he, despite suffering a slight stroke in January. Flagg was getting over intestinal surgery he'd had in December -- "they didn't tell me not to exercise" -- when he felt something go wrong in his head as he ran up a flight of stairs. He landed in the hospital for a week and didn't ski again until April, but he was back on the bike in March.
The hard part at first was lifting his right leg over the bike to get on it. But pedaling's no problem. "I ride about 50 miles a day now," he said in an interview last week.
He has to concentrate to make his right leg do its share of the work, but his heart and lungs seem as strong as ever. During a 20-mile spin through West Boylston and Sterling, Flagg continued the interview, talking without panting even as he biked up hills.
"For downhill skiing, biking is about the best thing you can do," he said, noting that he performs better on the slopes when he has warmed up by pedaling to the mountain. It's about a 20-mile ride from his house on West Mountain Street in Worcester to the ski area in Princeton, but he likes to extend it on back roads to avoid narrow, bumpy stretches of Route 140.
"I ski with a younger crowd, and they expect me to do what they do," said Flagg, who was ranked the best skier in the country in his age group in 1992. "My age isn't really a factor," skiing or biking.
Improvements in bike technology have smoothed the way, he said, and comforts like padded Lycra shorts make a difference. "I used to ride all over in a pair of regular corduroys," he said. "I don't know how I ever did it."
His Brooks leather saddle was already broken in when he got it from the previous owner, Eugene D. Murphy of Worcester, who was killed in a 1993 biking accident along with fellow rider Robert J. Wall Sr. of Grafton. Flagg's bike was parked closest to the speakers during the dedication of a new bike rack in memory of Murphy and Wall this spring in West Boylston, and he got a kick out of the fact that the people who spoke rested their hands on that saddle.
Flagg tried mountain biking in Vail, Colo., when he was there for a 10th Mountain Division reunion, and liked it. He plans to do more this year at another 10th Mountain reunion in Ketchum, Idaho.
His only try at bike racing was a race that used to go up Mount Wachusett, from the ski area to the summit, and he once came in second in the 50-and-older category, when he was past 60. He also used to ride from home to Fort Devens and then run a 10K race there.
Riding a bike, "you just want to see how far you can go, I guess," he said. "I don't know about other people, but that's what it is for me."
Flagg retired at age 68 as a field agent with the state Veterans Bureau, and he used to bike to work in Boston. His route home became the tail end of his signature bike ride: Pedal from Worcester to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, then take the ferry to Boston and bike home, all in one day. He doesn't have an odometer on his bike but figures it's about 200 miles.
He first did it about 10 years ago. A friend invited him to Provincetown, and he set out on his bike at 8 a.m., figuring he'd stop for the night somewhere. "But I just kept riding and riding, and I got there at 6 o'clock." The next time, he added the ferry and the return leg, arriving home about 9:30 p.m.
"Quite a few in the bike club(Seven Hills Wheelmen) didn't believe that it could be done in one day," Flagg said, and they challenged him to do it again. The club advertised the ride, and members David Hansen of Worcester and Toby Snelson of Rutland did it with Flagg, then 65. "At least I have two witnesses now," Flagg said.
Flagg has also been known to bike from Worcester up past Rutland, Vt., in a day, a similar distance over hillier roads.
"Maybe when I'm 75 I'll make that Provincetown trip again," he said. "It's all downhill, you know."
Until Truro, he added, where the wind and the terrain rear up. And then it's a steady uphill from Boston. But that was just an afterthought.
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