The Art of Embro

I shot the photo above at the 1990 Tour de Trump. This was the year of my introduction to the practice of embrocation. Readers of BKW may recall this image from another post I wrote called “Belgian Knee Warmers.” This was literally the first time I had ever seen a pro rider embrocated for cold, wet conditions. I had seen some footage of PROs massaged post-race, but this was the first time I had seen a rider massaged pre-race as well as the first time I had a chance to see that the soigneur was using something with more backbone than regular massage oil.

The soigneur working on Viatcheslav Ekimov wasn’t stingy with the embrocation. He was applying it like a detailer would car wax. The smell was a heady bouillabaisse of menthol, Provençal spices and witches brew. And he massaged Eki’s legs right up to the hip joint and deeply enough to hit the bone.

That season my teammates taught me about embrocating before a race. We were in New England and collegiate racing took place early enough in the spring that it was easy to identify with the Northern Classics. Our weather was cold without fail but also included liberal doses of rain. It was this latter feature that caused one of the old guard of our team (a guy who had raced for France’s famed amateur club ACBB) to teach us that tights were cycling’s answer to the sponge. They absorbed cold water, picking up weight and making you cold.

As it was my first season of racing in New England, everything I thought I knew about the cold was coming up short. My tights were too thin. The only jacket I owned was a windbreaker. I’d never seen booties. I was trying to split the atom with an axe.

I dropped by the local market and picked up a goodly sized jar of Icy Hot. Afraid of using too much, I applied it only to my knees. An hour later, my knees felt amazing but my calves were cold and my quads and hamstrings, protected by that ultimate insulator—6 oz. Lycra—were shockingly, surprisingly, cold.

I’ve learned a lot since then. Embrocation has been a helpful ingredient in many of my best race performances and it is something I truly continue to use on a regular basis. It’s true that you don’t often see a PRO training with embrocation on his legs, but such is the difference between the members of a ProTour team and privateers like us who must fix our own flats, mix our own bottles, self-massage, and do our own laundry. Once you learn how to use embrocation, it begins to feel like a secret weapon.

When other riders find out that I use embrocation, I tend to get a lot of questions about the practice. While I believe many riders are familiar with the basics, I thought it might be helpful to pass along the tips I learned from others. Forgive me for the really rudimentary bits.

The first step is to pull on your bibs. The last thing in the world you want to have happen is to have your chamois go sliding over some Dutch oven embro before settling on your fruit cup. Pull the bibs up and then, once the shorts are in position pull them back down just a touch if you plan to use a chamois cream. (Of course, this assumes you put your chamois cream on you rather than on the chamois; that’s perhaps fodder for a Friday Group Ride debate.) Similarly, you don’t want the bibs smearing chamois cream up your belly, especially if it’s the high-powered stuff with some menthol in it.

Next, if you’re going to wear a heart rate monitor or base layer under your bibs, put them on now. You don’t want to be fumbling with the tail of a base layer or the chest strap with embrocation on your fingers.

Put on your arm warmers and jersey. The idea is to be finished dressing (except for your jacket or vest) at the point you deal with the hot stuff. On rare occasions, if my lower back has been fussy, I’ll leave the jersey off as I apply the embro and when I’ve finished with my legs, I’ll massage some into my lower back.

Roll the legs of your bibs up. I rest one foot on the toilet seat so that I can access the whole of my leg and really massage the embrocation into my skin. Depending on the brand of embrocation I’ll take anywhere from a dab to several fingers full of cream. The Euro brands generally seem to require a bit more to do their job than some of the American brands. I begin by dabbing some around my lower leg and then massaging it in before moving above the knee. I go way up my thigh with the embro, almost as high as I shave, and I learned after my first crash to shave very high indeed.

Some embrocations are meant to be applied a little thicker so that they actually provide a thin layer of insulation. Many of these, in my experience, aren’t equipped with much heat so I’ll combine embros to get the effect I want. On cold and wet days, I’ll begin with something with a fair amount of heat; the Mad Alchemy Russich Thee in medium is a particular favorite. Once I’ve massaged it in, I’ll add a thicker, non-heating layer over it, and my go-to embro for this is the Record Pregara Impermeabile thanks to its mix of petroleum jelly, paraffin and lanolin. It’s a leg warmer that can’t get wet.

Once the ride is over, if the day has been particularly brutal, conditions-wise (which for here means I’m coated in industrial ooze and dusted in sand) I’ll undress in the shower. The very next thing I do is apply Dawn dishwashing liquid to my legs, even before I worry about rinsing the sand and grime off my legs. The sand helps pick up some of the embro and acts as a kind of 300-grit loofa.

When trying new embrocations, use them sparingly if you’re not sure just how much heat they’ll provide and try them on shorter rides. The two big mistakes you can make in using embro are using way too much and ending up with your legs on fire before the ride is over, and using embro without much staying power on a long ride. Once you know just how it it’ll be and how long it lasts, you can start working it into your arsenal of big day prep materials.

Try a few out. You may find that on those hardest days your legs feel just a little better and you can dig a little deeper.

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  1. Lachlan

    Yes its pretty radioactive stuff
    Top advice, I’d also add:

    1) dont’ do it before a race in your car… unless you like car seats that smell and are strangely slippery for the rest of the year. : – )

    2) the golden rule: don’t shave your legs anytime before it! Keep a separation of days if possible. : 0 )

    3) Most of the time tights are the PRO thing to do. Reserve for race/v wet conditions. Remembering that it doesnt heat you up/retain heat, it just irritates your body so your body heats its self up!

  2. Gus_C

    very nice write up on embrocation, Padraig. My introduction to embro was pretty much around that time, maybe a tad earlier/later. Moving to New England definitely made me reacquaint myself with the burning stuff, and i have been a faithful user/applier ever since. One small detail i’d like to add, is that some embrocations don’t come off as easily. I have a mini “kit” that is consisted of surgical gloves, rubbing alcohol and a hand towel. gloves for application, alcohol to clean it off. regardless of the race’s weather outcome, i *always* vigorously wipe the embro off my legs after the event. sometimes sitting in the car on the way home, even the smallest increase in temperature makes my legs BURN if i don’t wipe it off properly. the alcohol makes it a quick and clean removal, and the shower at home will finish it off. just sayin’. by the way, Robot is a great guy.

  3. rich_mutt

    how about tights and embro in 30 deg weather? i use mad alchemy mild in conjunction with tights, which isn’t as mild as one might think, but also, not that strong at all.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for your additions. It’s good to get as much info out there as possible.

      Gus: The gloves are a great idea. My “away kit” includes baby wipes which feel a little gentler than straight rubbing alcohol, but you’re right that it’s a bad idea to get in the car without addressing the issue.

      Rich: Your variation sounds ideal for days that would keep most riders indoors.

  4. Dan Socie

    This was top-notch write-up and I’m not sure i’d be explained better. I’m such a big fan of embrocation I decided to make my own. I’d love to send you some to see what you think.

  5. Kev

    OK, so if you apply right before the ride, how do you clean your hands well enough so you dont stick a “hot” finger in your eye and blind yourself? Suggestions? thanks

  6. josh

    i think one of the most important steps was left out. pulling up the bibs before applying is great. leaving room to put on chamois cream is also great. applying chamois cream BEFORE embro so you don’t end up cross-contaminating is super key.

    “chamois first every time”:

    1. Author

      Kev: I do all my steps related to embro in the same bathroom. The moment I finish applying the embro I wipe my hands off with a paper towel and then grab the Dawn from the shower and wash my hands.

      Josh: You’re right about chamois cream before embro; sorry if that wasn’t explicit enough in the post.

  7. velopix

    another pro tip for the “away” kit–nitrile gloves. Apply the heat with gloves on. Gloves off (do it EMT style and both come off inside out) and no embro coated fingers to clean.

    1. Author

      Velopix: Great tip. I’m sure that will make for quicker cleanup than baby wipes.

      You do nice work, BTW. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Lachlan

    as if to comment on much of what said above – interesting to see that today’s Paris Nice stage had some of the top boys in full tights / knee warmers (knickers if you’re that way inclined)…
    Quite something to see on a hill top finish day of all days!

    Baltic in temperature but NOT WET I can assume… (havent seen video on ly stills, so guessing the meteo based on that!)

  9. Monica

    Just one question, is embrocation only meant to work when your skin gets wet? I’m looking for something to put under my bibs. Our winter can be below 0 degrees celsius and even with the best winter bibs it can leave you quite cold. I also have a knee problem and I’m looking for something to keep me warm underneath bibs (without adding layers).
    I tried an embrocation cream but it seemed to only activate if the skin got wet, otherwise no warmth from it. Is that the way embrocation only works?

    1. Author

      Monica: Most of the stuff I have (and I’ll include everything I’ve tried from Mad Alchemy in this) works whether it’s dry or wet. And I often embro more than just the skin that’s exposed.

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