Pedal along on a two-decade party tradition called the Zoo de Mackinac, from Boyne Highland Resort near Harbor Springs to Mackinaw City. 3,500 springtime-crazed cyclists, 51 miles of twisty asphalt, one ferry ride to an island, and an unknown number of brewskis.

George and Lisa Petitjean meet at our house at 9 a.m., one hour later than we’d originally planned. Perhaps we should hurry to the start line of our 51-mile ride, but really, why? Instead we stop at a bagel place for breakfast and linger over large coffees and bagel sandwiches. On the way out, George buys another bagel for the road. It has chocolate chips.

Lisa and I alternate sips of coffee and water, then we remember that we’re headed out onto a two-lane surrounded mostly by woods and open countryside for the entire day. We decide it’s best to skip the liquids altogether.

Okay, so maybe we aren’t off to a great start.

We’re about to join 3,475 cyclists in the 22nd Annual Zoo-De-Mackinac, a 51-mile bike ride, mostly along the lovely and legendary route M-119, a.k.a Tunnel of Trees, a.k.a Lakeshore Drive, north out of Harbor Springs. My husband, Trevor, and I are charmingly known as Zoo-De-Mac Virgins, as it’s the first time we are doing the ride. George rode last year and has made it his personal mission to squash all comers (though in the end, he’s one of the last to cross the finish line).

Even with the bagels and late start, our posse is ahead of many other riders. Most Zoo-De-Mac diehards spent the night before partying at the Highlands’ Zoo Bar, drinking and dancing to the Aaron Vaughn Band.

Have I mentioned that this is not a race?

The Zoo-De-Mackinac is heralded as a gathering for outdoor enthusiasts, with an unadvertised but indisputable addendum of who like to party. It reminds me of my beer league ski team—we’ve all got our best gear, and there are more than a handful of chiseled bodies around, but no one’s taking it very seriously.

We clip into pedals under the inflatable archway starting line and settle into our padded shorts, clicking gears to get into a fast groove.

Trevor, a mountain biker at heart, has borrowed a Cannondale CAAD 10 from Chris at Latitude 45 Bike Shop in Petoskey, and George is riding an ancient road bike. I’m on my basic Giant road bike. As we take off down the winding back roads, it becomes clear that the hybrid cruiser Lisa is riding won’t keep up with our skinny tires that are rolling along at a rock-hard 120 pounds of pressure.

The ride pace is not a big deal in the beginning; no one is rushing it. At the top of every hill for the first 25 miles, cyclists are sprawled under heavy shade trees, bottles of wine decanted among friends. Bob Marley sings every little thing is gonna be alright from the official safety truck’s speakers.

We have lucked out on the weather. In the history of the world, there has never been a more beautiful day than this one. The early-for-Northern-Michigan warmth is tempered by cool breezes that seem to originate directly from the surrounding farms’ tilled soil and the fields of grass newly free from winter’s last hurrah.

Mile after mile we skim past crops of white-blossomed trillium that flicker against the dark forest floor. M-119, one of National Geographic Traveler Magazine’s 50 Most Scenic Drives, climbs straight up Michigan hills and meanders down long, winding descents through tunnels and tunnels of trees. The smell of cows and chickens and horses mixes with rubber tires on asphalt, and there are some stretches where all we hear is pedaling and crickets.

Learn More About the Tunnel of Trees

I fall back to be with Lisa and her slow-rolling hybrid, and I realize with a certain smugness that I am clearly the kindest of the three of us on speedier road bikes. She is undeterred by her laggard performance; the spirit is simply that high this early in the ride.

We reach a section near the most beautiful snapshot of scenery we’ll see all day—a covered bridge near Birchwood Farms, where the leaves and ivy are deeply green and damp and the road keeps bending and bending—where it’s difficult to stay under 40 miles per hour. I will draw on this memory of effortless speed later, during miles 45–50, when the bugs attack and my muscles have gone from workout to sore to still-working-out, when my arms have turned deep red from the sun, and even I have tried to ditch poor Lisa and that stupid slow bike of hers.

In the middle of the ride we stop at Legs Inn in Cross Village, the classic Polish restaurant on Sturgeon Bay, and sit on the cool grass with hundreds of riders who have turned lunch into a half-day affair. We eat the provided sandwiches, and the guys cave and order beers before catching a quick catnap under that perfect measure of sunshine.

The second half of the ride is not as lovely as the first. The Lake Michigan shore is, while sweet to see, bug territory and plainly irritating. The riders who have stopped for a 38-mile-warm beer seem to be doing so in boredom, usually, and not in revelry. At least that’s how it all appears running through my tired and foggy filter.

Lisa, on the other hand, persists. She, with the heavy cruiser and the backpack, will not give herself over to the safety truck, now hauling a trailer covered with heaps of abandoned bikes, their riders hanging out the vehicle’s windows.

We want her to give up. We play mind games, congratulating her Pollyanna attitude while calling out her bug bites. We talk of the next challenge in the road, the next major stretch. I want to say she soldiers on. But really, she just parties on; her spirit does not flag.

The boys again take off, casually riding alongside a particularly athletic, scantily-clad blonde, tossing corny jokes back and forth and doing teenaged tricks like wheelies and no-hands. When they realize that they are no longer with us and circle back, George decides it’s in his best interest to ride the rest of the way with his wife. We are nearly to our hotels, after all.

Trevor and I find new energy and are quickly in the home stretch, and we have left all groups behind and are riding alone, and very fast, through the fudge shop–lined streets of Mackinaw City, past the souvenir T-shirts and in front of tourists taking our pictures. We reach the banner announcing the end of the ride, and the best part about the finish line is the beer tent set up immediately after, so we don’t have far to walk.

There is a band playing, and food is set out potluck-style, and surprisingly few people sit at the tables. Everyone is jolly and a bit drunk, and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder watching the stragglers finish. Trevor and I shuffle to the very edge of the canvas fence that keeps the partying finishers corralled, and we hold several plastic cups of beer in the air when George and Lisa come into view. Lisa has had a flat tire. There may have been some walking. The cups are embraced with grateful hands.

As the shoreside music dies, we board the ferry to Mackinac Island. The restaurants and bars are packed with people and music and food, and the streets are full of athletes and athlete wannabes and even riders who have no interest in athleticism to speak of, and slightly irritated tourists who have picked this night to visit the island, alongside nearly 3,500 cyclists who are ready for a tall drink. The Pink Pony, The Gatehouse and Horn’s are essential participants in the cycling nonrace, and are toasted by the cyclists who squish out the doors of the packed bars.

We tuck into meat and potatoes and vegetables and fish at The Yankee Rebel, and Lisa is given the first glass of wine from each bottle we order. Our waitress dances. She will be tipped well tonight.

We do not venture into the bars, with the music blasting and cyclists dancing on shaky legs. We move slowly, sore and sunburned, full and jolly. We watch the stars as they join this picture-perfect day, marking the end of a good one in Northern Michigan, where nothing is much of a race.

More Northern Michigan Biking 

Photo(s) by Angela Brown