Dale Strode/Durango Herald
Chris Wherry, amid a prerace flurry of activity at Fort Lewis College, briskly walked toward the Student Center on the FLC campus.
Once he made eye contact with a lone cyclist stopped at an intersection, Wherry, too, stopped.
“Hello, Levi,” he said to the rider clad in the colors of Omega Pharma-Quickstep.
“Hey, Chris,” said Levi Leipheimer, international cycling superstar and the reigning champion of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
“My first time here. This is great. How do I get to ...
“250 ... County Road 250?” said Wherry, finishing the sentence of a cyclist he’s known since childhood. Leipheimer was about to head out on a training ride.
Wherry, the assistant sports manager for the Champion System Pro Cycling Team, was back home in Durango preparing his race squad for Monday’s opening stage of the second USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Leipheimer was in Durango prepping for his title defense in the first major pro stage race in Colorado since the days of the Coors Classic and the Red Zinger Classic.
“We grew up together; we raced together on the old Saturn team,” Wherry said after giving Leipheimer directions to East Animas Road and the quiet ride to Bakers Bridge, Shalona Hill and beyond.
“Levi’s just amazing,” Wherry said. “We’re basically the same age (38). I retired ... what, four years ago. And he just keeps on going and going.”
Wherry, the former U.S. national road racing champion as well as an Iron Horse criterium legend, gravitated to cycling team management and race organization after he retired as a racing pro.
Last year, he worked as a finish venue official for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, getting a close look at every finishing configuration.
This year, he said he got the call he had dreamed of when the Champion System pro team and general manager Edward Beamon asked Wherry to join the squad, which is based in China.
He basically serves as the team director for North American races for the team, which is classified as a UCI Pro Continental Team. A colleague manages the Asian races.
“This race is a tremendous opportunity for us, a first-year team,” Wherry said while bike mechanic Chris Davidson of Salt Lake City methodically prepared the team bikes for a weekend spin.
“The goal of the squad is to develop the Asian riders. Eventually, they hope to develop a World Tour team for Asian riders.”
He said the opportunity to race in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge against top teams such as BMC, Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda and Liquigas-Cannondale will provide invaluable experience for the developing riders of Champion System.
Wherry spent the bulk of his prerace days at Fort Lewis College on his cellphone, scribbling left-handed notes on his crammed to-do list.
Like the cyclists, he was eager to get the race started.
“They’re ready for it, no doubt,” Wherry said.
His international squad includes three Chinese riders, a German, two young Australians and two Americans (Craig Lewis and Chris Butler).
Lewis, he said, has been living and training in Boulder. “He’s a great climber ... fun to watch. We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
Matthias Friedmann of Germany will work the sprints for the team, he said.
Australians Aaron Kemps and Cameron Wurf bring international credentials. Wurf finished second in a pro stage race in China this year. Kemps won a stage of the Tour Down Under this year.
“They all seem to love Durango. I think they had a good time here,” Wherry said.
The Asian riders are Pengda Jiao, Biao Kiu and Gang Xu.
Working with the diverse group of cyclists with a base in China adds to the excitement of the professional team, Wherry said as he made last-minute preparations for the team’s arrival at Monday’s finish in Telluride.
Wherry, of course, also had to manage a Tuesday-morning transfer to Montrose for the start of Stage 2, which will finish in Crested Butte.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do since I stopped racing,” Wherry said.
“And it is fun, exciting. Asia is a critical, untapped market,” he said before returning to a pressing call awaiting on his cellphone – made in China.
There’s still more work to do.