Washtenaw County's top five bike rides

Al McWilliams has cycled in locations ranging from Dallas to Spain, but he says the Ann Arbor area is one of the best he's found to pursue his passion for two-wheeled travel.

In fact, McWilliams moved to Ann Arbor expressly for the unique amenities the area has to offer cycling enthusiasts.

"Ann Arbor has this little core of an urban lifestyle," he says. "However, if I go three miles west of here, I'm in a cornfield. That is actually really hard to find in the United States."

With summer in full swing, there's no better time to take advantage of Washtenaw County's cycling wonderland. Concentrate chatted with McWilliams and Ann Arbor cyclist and bike fitter Jessica Bratus for their thoughts on some of the county's best bike rides.

Here's what we came up with:

1. The Classic
Huron River Drive from Ann Arbor to Dexter and back (about 24 miles)

"The classic–the road, if you will–is Huron River Drive out to Dexter," McWilliams says.If you've ever cruised up the scenic drive on a Saturday or Sunday, you'll find that countless area cyclists agree. At any given moment you can usually see more cyclists on the road than cars (Bratus says she thinks of it as a "giant bike lane"). The winding route offers gorgeous views of the Huron River, and with the exception of a traffic signal at Zeeb Road you can cycle almost uninterrupted. And if you're not the type to bike 12 miles and then head straight back to Ann Arbor, take a break and have a drink or a meal in lovely downtown Dexter.

2. The Convention of Cyclists
Dexter-Chelsea Road from Dexter to Chelsea and back (about 15 miles)

If you're seeking another pleasant ride connecting two of Washtenaw County's most charming downtowns, try riding Dexter-Chelsea Road between its namesake communities. When you get to Chelsea you'll want to stop at Zou Zou's Café, which McWilliams notes is "packed" on the weekend with cyclists socializing and racing. "They ride in from Ann Arbor and ride in from Jackson," McWilliams says. "They ride in kind of from everywhere, and Chelsea is the central point."

Depending on your personal stamina you could also make this route the second leg of your ride up Huron River Drive from Ann Arbor, bringing your total mileage up to just under 40. Or try McWilliams' recommendation of a loop around Waterloo Recreation Area to tack on an extra 17 miles.

3. The Wamp
Loop route from Ann Arbor to Wamplers Lake (80 miles)

More accomplished cyclists–or just particularly ambitious ones–may want to try a ride that Bratus calls "The Wamp," which actually stretches beyond the borders of Washtenaw County into Lenawee County. The 80-mile route meanders through small towns like Manchester and Norvell, working its way into the scenic Irish Hills. The midpoint of the ride is well timed for a cooling wade in the ride's namesake, Wamplers Lake at Hayes State Park. Bratus originally discovered this route through the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society's website when she first started doing long-distance rides."That was just one that I chose for the distance, but it became my favorite ride," she says.

4. Mountain Biking for Beginners
Island Lake Recreation Area trail loops (6-15 miles) or Ann Arbor to Island Lake Recreation Area and back (54 miles)

Mountain biking has become increasingly popular in recent years, but it's possible to have a hillier, off-road mountain biking experience without necessarily having to invest in a mountain bike. McWilliams recommends Island Lake Recreation Area's 15-mile mountain bike trail, where the terrain is rugged but relaxed enough to ride a cyclocross bike or even a road bike. Depending on your stamina, you can opt for driving your bike out to the recreation area and trying out one or both of the mountain bike trail loops, which run six and nine miles. Or do it McWilliams style and bike it from Ann Arbor to the recreation area. "It's a great Saturday afternoon ride just because it's so fun and relaxing," McWilliams says.

5. Dirthammer
Barton Park to Walsh Road and back (24 miles)

McWilliams notes that many cyclists particularly value Ann Arbor for its many dirt roads, and this route is a prime way to experience them. It's also a popular one – the Ann Arbor Velo Club makes a weekly ride of it in the fall. The route starts at Ann Arbor's Barton Park, briefly hitting Huron River Drive to weave up through Barton Hills and northwest into the Webster area.

There are multiple reasons Washtenaw County cyclists take pleasure in an unpaved route, although not all of them are positive. McWilliams says dirt roads are enjoyable because cyclists can ride a slightly fatter tire than usual while still riding a standard road bike. But the other big advantage in dirt roads is the lower level of unnecessarily close encounters with cars, something that both McWilliams and Bratus describe as one of the few major downsides to cycling here.

McWilliams notes that at least once a week he experiences a motorist passing him within six inches of his bike despite no opposing traffic–which he believes to be intentional behavior, given that it's often accompanied by verbal abuse.

Bratus agrees that Michigan drivers in general have a different, oddly aggressive relationship with cyclists. She notes that when she cycles in southern states like Alabama, drivers allow cyclists an entire lane of space when they pass. But for McWilliams, Bratus and legions of other Washtenaw County cyclists, the pros of cycling in our area vastly outweigh that unfortunate con.

"It won't stop me from enjoying what I love the most in my life, which is cycling," Bratus says. "At some point you have to kind of be okay with that."