Dave Schlabowske
Bike Czar

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.

By , Bike Federation of Wisconsin - Jun 20th, 2014 12:12 pm

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 Best Place is the gathering place for many a bike ride and bicycling is an integral part of the redevelopment of the Pabst Brewery complex.

The Best Place is the gathering place for many a bike ride and bicycling is an integral part of the Pabst Brewery complex’s redevelopment.

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.

The Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee has always been about riding off piste.

The Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee has always been about riding off piste.

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.

New jobs like those at the bicycle friendly Milwaukee Brewing Company build on our brewing heritage.

New jobs like those at the bicycle friendly Milwaukee Brewing Company build on our brewing heritage.

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.

Cargo bikes taking sweet jumps is the face of the new Milwaukee.

Cargo bikes taking sweet jumps is the face of the new Milwaukee.

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!

Thanks for all you have done for bicycling in Wisconsin Pee Qui. Give me a holler when you are back on two wheels!

Thanks for all you have done for bicycling in Wisconsin, Pee Qui. Give me a holler when you are back on two wheels!

Categories: Bike Czar, Real Estate

10 thoughts on “Bike Czar: The Legacy of Phil Van Valkenberg”

  1. Alan Bengtson says:

    Dave, great article! I’ve known Phil for over 15 years know. First met him at my first Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee and have been going almost every year since. What a great guy! And prolific writer and cycling advocate! I’m amazed he was able to hold this enjoyable event for 30 years. It got us to see places we would most likely would have never gone to on our own and by bike! Very influencial for the city as you mention in you article. I hope Phil recovers from his illness over he next months and can make it for his other “Steel is Real” pub bike tour in September and FTTM next year…! Cheers Phil!

  2. Gene Rankin says:

    Van (as we called him back then; what’s this “pee wee” stuff, anyway?) used to ride motorcycles together back in the Olden Dayes (mid 60s). We each had a Honda 160, and we regularly terrorized STH 60 between Spring Green & Sauk City. We re-made contact many years later at Tyranena, both fans of Queenie McCarter. I look forward to seeing him back on his feet & drinking beer while catching the blues.

  3. Karen says:

    Great article. Great ride. Great man. Thanks Pee Oui

  4. judith ann moriarty says:

    hey Phil, do you have any relatives from southwest Iowa?

  5. Ann Murphy says:

    i am a friend of Georia Jane, and have been enjoying following your posts. I wish you well and mpay God bless you on this difficult, but rewarding journey to complete recovery. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger! My friend , Jim and I have ridden the Elroy Sparta trail…Beautiful! Good memory as he has since passed. Blessings to you and Georgia Jane!

  6. Gordo Ranum says:

    Phil has been my inspiration to discover more of Wisconsin by bike especially with his first book on bike friendly back roads and the DOT maps. Took me 30 years to finally meet and thank him. All bikers have benefitted from his volume of work and efforts. See you at the Steel Is Real Ride Phil! Get well PeeOui.

  7. Alan Bengtson says:

    If you want to see Phil V’s contributions to the biking tourism over the years, check out his bio/resume on TrailGenius’ website:


    Phil has been very prolific indeed!

  8. Chad Gallwitz says:

    Hey Gene Rankin, Pee Oui got the nickname from Lynn Quackenbush during the 1st FTTM. Lynn and I have always been the lucky recipients of Phil’s warmth, and I hope some year soon I can come back and ride another FTTM. haven’t been able too since the 25th one….anyway, great ride, great person, great life…..

  9. Rick Droster says:

    Not many people know how instrumental Van was for many of us young cyclists just discovering the sport in the mid-1970’s. He took a few of us young riders under his wing at the old Yellow Jersey Co-op and helped us with our equipment, taught us the sport of racing, assisted us in our travels and helped us find our way on to a better life…he made a huge difference in our lives. A great guy.

  10. High Five Phil! I really enjoyed reading that article. I remember meeting Phil for the first time at one of earliest Seeley Hills Klister Classic. He had his “photographer” hat on that day. There’s a guy that wore many hats, he always, (usually) took time out to stop by, fill us in, catch up with us and he was so humble of all his accomplishments and what he was involved in.
    It was many, many years later, Phil stopped by and dropped off some great slides of me and Gordy at that Klister Classic. How thoughtful. Gotta love that guy!

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