“I’m signed up for the Birkie,” Phil Van Valkenberg informed me confidently from his wheelchair this week. With a smirk he added, “I’m sure that’ll send some people quaking in their boots.”
It’s a hopeful, bold and an entirely in character goal for Valkenberg – author of many bicycling guidebooks for Wisconsin and the Midwest, former columnist and assistant editor of Silent Sports and, until recently, the founding director of the Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee – considering he is still recovering from the sudden and debilitating stroke he suffered in France on April 6, 2014.
That Valkenberg, who turned 69 in late June, could be back in skiing form in time for the late February 2015 race wouldn’t be without precedent. Since he survived a serious cancer scare a few years ago, he’s biked throughout the U.S. and Europe and completed his 34th Birkie.
Valkenberg, known to his many biking and skiing buddies as “Pee Oui” (that’s “Pee Wee” in French), is determined to repeat that feat despite his current confinement to a wheelchair, or “hell chair” as he calls it. As he sipped a beer on the Memorial Union Terrace in Madison with me last Wednesday, he said he’s walking more and more each day. He still has little feeling in or awareness of the left side of his body caused by the stroke in the right side of his brain, however.
Although his recovery has progressed slower than desired, he sounded upbeat and willing to only slightly lower his athletic expectations.
“I may have to drop to the Korte or Prince Haakon,” he conceded, which would mean switching his registration from the 54K classic Birkie to the 23K or 12K distances. Having skied 34 full Birkies and three Kortes to date, Valkenberg will likely hold out until the last minute before switching events.
Valkenberg is still as sharp and funny as ever, having lost none of his faculties. When I pointed this out and suggesed the stroke “could have been worse,” he responded immediately, “Yeah, I could be dead.”
He said he had no forewarning when he fell where he stood in the parking lot of his hotel in Lille, France, just before going for a ride with his partner Georgia Kaftan. In fact, he had successfully tackled the killer climbs and cobblestones of the Tour de Flanders citizen race in Belgium just days earlier.
Suddenly it was up to Kaftan to make use of the travel insurance she had bought for the two of them. Valkenberg spent 17 days in a French hospital before being flown by Learjet back to Madison. Another month at Meriter Hospital mostly involved rigorous rehab, which is ongoing. Valkenberg credited great doctors on both sides of the Atlantic for his treatment to date.
He is also very grateful and fortunate to have at Kaftan at his side, his partner of the past two years, who has cared for Valkenberg full time. Before the stroke, they biked and skied together extensively. She, too, is hopeful they will do so again.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports magazine.