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An interview with Chris Wherry, June 7, 2006

Wherry's extended lease - Part I

Current USPRO champion Chris Wherry (Toyota-United Pro) has been an elusive Captain America this year at many of the major North American races, but it hasn't been by choice. After suffering through the first races of the season with a nasty viral infection Wherry was sidelined for three months - leaving races like the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia without the USPRO champion; and although he's made a slow comeback, Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski found out that it's now all systems go for America's national champion.

On the podium in stars in stripes
Photo ©: Mitch Friedman
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For a time it seemed that the stars and stripes might not get a chance to display his hard-earned jersey, but the cycling gods smiled on Wherry and conveniently moved the USPRO championships three months later in the calendar. Wherry beat the bug and began his season racing smaller stage races like Tour of the Gila and Joe Martin, carefully monitoring his fitness before returning to defend his title in Philadelphia with a view to defending his national championship in September.

You have to look rather carefully to notice the differences between Chris Wherry's USPRO champion's kit and bike to his Toyota-United Pro teammates. A cynical person might even argue that the team did this in a dark foreshadow to Wherry's ailment, so that fans would think the USPRO champion was in the field somewhere.

But in a cosmic turn of events Wherry is getting his chance to race a full season with his jersey, thanks to the new date of the USPRO championships. And he is not wasting his health - even taking his situation as a sign that his title defense is the most important goal for him. "It would have been a bummer to only be representing the jersey for a month or so. I did wear it at the beginning of the season, but not at 100%. I really want to wear it when I can show what made me the champion last year," he explains.

"Obviously my fitness is not right up there with last year, but it's coming really quickly"

-Wherry explains that he's slightly on the back foot in terms of fitness in 2006

So is he happy about the date change? "I actually planned that!" jokes Wherry. "I called up my connections on the inside and said, 'Can you guys just push it back - I plan on taking a vacation for the first half of the season.' No, you know, the universe has a strange way of working itself out. Whether I was sick for a reason early in the season, it has just put the focus on the second half of the season, where the USPRO championships are. Now I am happy to be getting better and I am fresh when other guys are getting tired from racing all year. I think that in a weird way the team is happy it's working out like this because a lot of the guys have been doing a lot of racing. They need a break and need someone to step in and take over a little," he explains.

Taking a step back from things like season goals, Wherry is most of all happy to just be healthy and racing again. "It was definitely a long and rough road to get back to good health - just to get things back to a normal level," he says. "It's fun to be back racing with the team. I did training camp with them, then raced Pomona and Redlands thinking that I was getting better but I was still sick...I started racing at Tour of the Gila, and even though I got such a late start to the season it seems like things have been clicking pretty good. It's fun to be with the guys. It's just nice to be healthy."

Shotgun training camp

Wherry checks his bike
Photo ©: Steve Cohen
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Tour of the Gila might have been the perfect mid-season entrance for a stage racer like Wherry, who rode in support of eventual winner Chris Baldwin. "Chris was riding so well and it was nice just to support him. I like Tour of the Gila; it's mellow but with hard stages and a relaxed atmosphere. It's a race for the riders with good courses," he says. "It was also a huge feedback for me seeing where my fitness was - being able to not only finish the race and help Chris, but even just to be there. That was a big bonus for me mentally, to know my fitness was not that bad!"

Next on the menu was what has become the pre-Philly week training regimen for many American teams. "We went to Joe Martin and Tri-Peaks which was a great block of ten days of racing and training for me - we trained right through the whole week - we did the same thing last year with Health Net. Obviously my fitness is not right up there with last year, but it's coming really quickly," explains the former Health Net rider.

Chris Wherry gets ready
Photo ©: Mitch Friedman
(Click for larger image)

Following this, Wherry joined a few teammates in what is setting the Toyota-United Pro team apart from other teams. One of the tenets for the team is to spread themselves around the country to cover as many races as possible, especially in smaller markets. Wherry and company showed up to the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa for the annual Memorial Day weekend races - much to the delight and dismay of many regional racers. "It's really cool. Toyota wants to focus on some of the heartland races where they want to show their commitment to the sport. That's where they want to advertise. And they are good races so we are happy to go there. So we are going to have a team at Tour of Ohio and a team at Superweek."

"A lot of guys were actually happy and psyched to have some big guys come up," he says. "I'm sure they get to race with the same guys every weekend too, and to have some guys come in and mix it up is always good. We went up there and immediately had a warm welcome. Guys were coming up saying thanks for coming. And after three days of beating up on them they got together and ganged up on us on Monday at the Rock Island crit! We didn't have a sprinter there so we just took turns going up the road to get some fitness, and, that was the only way we were going to beat some of those Midwestern sprinters! It was good training; they made the racing hard, but those guys definitely had their day on Monday!"

Back to the big leagues

Wherry rides at Redlands
Photo ©: Jon Devich
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Following his impromptu race training, Wherry was forced to jump from the frying pan and into the fire at the CSC Invitational. "Coming out here [and racing] CSC was a little bit of a shock to the system. But it's like that whenever you fly and jump into a race, and it was exceptionally hard this year too - obviously, with the [small] number of guys that finished."

Also not helping matters was teammate Tony Cruz dropping the hammer mid-race, blowing the field apart. "Yeah, I wasn't in the best position when he did that. I was looking up the road cheering him on, but at the same time saying, 'Oh no, I wish you would have waited a half lap for me to get up there!'"

Wherry did finish the CSC Invitational, giving him further confidence in his fitness as he entered Philly week with the perpetually-tough race in Lancaster up first. "Lancaster was a real positive for our team, and of course we would have liked to have won. We weren't really setting up J.J. [Haedo] at all, he did a lot of work early," says Wherry. "Ivan Stevic was away late in the race and I thought he had a good card to play, but is just didn't work out. We had two of our most protected riders in the late race breaks. And Tony was in the main break of the day. We had all of our bases covered, but that's just bike racing. I think we were one of the only teams to finish with all eight guys in the main group - that was pretty impressive and positive to know that the team is in great shape," he adds.

Part II of Mark Zalewski's interview with Chris Wherry coming soon on Cyclingnews

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