The Legacy of Phil Van Valkenberg
His creation of the Fat Tire Tour and the state's first bicycling guides led the way to our growing local bike culture.
One could argue that the Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee, the grand daddy of all Milwaukee pub crawls, is one ingredient in the recipe for Milwaukee’s transformation from a midwestern city suffering from a post-industrial decline into the exciting, vibrant urban center that it is today. Thirty years later, Phil Van Valkenberg has now passed the torch to Jason Manders and the crew at Trail Genius, who vowed to continue his ride with the same goals Phil started it: to get people out on bicycles exploring Milwaukee’s hidden gems.
Van Valkenberg started the Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee 30 years ago after a ride through the Menomonee Valley; it was a poster child for Rustbelt decay, with 300 acres of brownfields dotted with abandoned factories. Since then, the valley has been transformed into a national success story for bicycle-oriented urban development. The Hank Aaron State Trail provides a guided tour through a beautifully reclaimed river valley where you will be as successful fishing for trout or salmon as for employment.
The Menomonee Valley has at least 40 new businesses that provide more than 5,000 people with family-supporting jobs in manufacturing, entertainment and non-profit sectors. While the Phil’s Fat Tire Tour can only claim to have played a small part in that transformation, a conscious choice was made by local leaders to make the bicycle an integral part of the plan to remake the Menomonee Valley as a unique urban destination for recreation as well as business.
It is thanks to cycling visionaries like Van Valkenberg that Milwaukee and in fact, the rest of Wisconsin, are such great places to live and ride a bike. Not only did Phil start the Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee, he also created the first bicycling guides for the state of Wisconsin and played a role in getting the Elroy Sparta Trail built, our nation’s first rail trail.
Regular readers know I believe the bicycle is an indicator species for healthy, vibrant communities. Places where you see lots of people out riding bicycles tend to have strong economies and are attractive to that all-important demographic, the youthful, highly-educated working class. Often, the bicycle can be a simple, inexpensive part of the solution to the many complicated problems our society faces today. It is not a cure-all, but much like “drink lots of fluids and get some rest,” riding a bike is part of any healthy urban recovery.
Phil recently suffered a stroke, so he was not able to pedal around on the 30th anniversary of his ride, but everyone who knows him has faith he will make a full recovery. After all, he beat cancer a few years ago and was back on the bike. So I look forward to discovering even more of Milwaukee’s hidden gems with you soon, Pee Qui, get well!