Of the many Mount Sugarloafs strewn around North America (and perhaps further), there’s one in Western Massachusetts, a tiny granite lump rising out of the Connecticut River Valley adjacent to South Deerfield. The road that climbs the south summit rises a mere 650 feet, but is brutal in its efficiency. It features but two switchbacks and the grade following that first hairpin reduced many of my friends to walk. One late summer afternoon in the early 1990s, I rode it after work with a friend, a friend who happened to own both the 15-16 and 17-18 time trial records on that butte.
Dear reader, I decided to attack him.
Remember that math mistake that caused the Mars Climate Orbiter to plow into the surface of the planet rather than land gently on it? All because engineers in the U.S. transmitted English measurements, rather than metric.
Attacking my buddy Todd was that order of a mistake. He waited a second or two before putting in an acceleration to reel me in and then pass me. I didn’t yet know my body well enough to understand that I was already past threshold, spending cash I didn’t have.
And then I blew. Boy, did I blow. I sat down with limp thud and the burn spread like a crown fire through my legs, my back, my forearms and—as I would tell him when I struggled into the parking lot at the top—in the backs of my ears. My ears burned!
That’s the day I thought about when I learned of a new product called Topical Edge. Ampersand Biopharmeceuticals is a Southern California-based biotech company that has developed a proprietary cream that can deliver medications through the skin. One of the first products they’ve brought to market is Topical Edge, a cream that delivers sodium bicarbonate directly to muscles.
Studies have shown that sodium bicarbonate can buffer, or break down, lactic acid. Forgive the Biology 101 refresher, but on the off-chance that there are readers who don’t recall all this, here goes: As your muscles fire, they produce lactic acid. Normally, they don’t produce much (like when you’re walking), and your system is able to flush that lactate out of the muscles so they can keep working. However, as your exertion goes up, so does the production of lactate. Your lactate threshold is the heart rate at which you begin producing lactate as fast as your body can flush it away. Any harder than that and the lactate accumulates in the muscles and you start to feel that heinous burn.
Topical Edge has the ability to reduce that burn. Ampersand commissioned a study in which 15 competitive cyclists between 21 and 43 years of age rode a 4km time trial. This was a double-blind study complete with placebo. Post-exercise analysis showed a decrease in lactate levels, typically a drop from 11.2mmol/L to 9.2mmol/L, an impressive 17.8 percent reduction. Average ride time over the 4km trial decreased by 2.4 seconds and average power increased by 7 watts. Bear in mind a 4km time trial is insanely short, less than a six minute effort for these riders.
I gave Topical Edge a try a couple of weeks ago when I rode the three-day cyclocross event here in Santa Rosa called The Ghilotti Cup. In the first race, a 40-minute effort for me, I spent 12 minutes, a whopping 30 percent of the agony, above my threshold. While I’ve had reasonable form of late, I haven’t considered myself race-fit. I hit the highest heart rate I’ve seen since early last summer. Okay, this doesn’t carry the weight of a rigorously controlled double-blind experiment, but I’m satisfied that Topical Edge helped me tease more from myself than I would otherwise have been able to deliver.
Had I been suspicious that the goop didn’t work as advertised, that doubt was laid to rest two days later when I nearly equaled my max heart rate from Friday night and averaged 241 watts for the half hour race. I’d have sworn that the previous two races would have taken too much out of me to manage that. Normally, when I’m fatigued, my legs load up with lactic acid quickly, and while I didn’t have the same snap on Sunday I did Friday night, I could still deliver solid power. After the race was over, I took some time to introduce myself … to myself. Who was that guy?
A box of Topical Edge contains 10 envelopes of cream. They are glued in pairs with just enough contained in each envelope for one leg per workout, or race, for five workouts/races per box. A box goes for $29.99, making this stuff $6/use, but when I think about what I hope to get out of the day when I pin a number on, it’s not a bad investment. I can also think of the occasional training ride when the big Redwoods come out to play and I need every edge I can find just to survive the day. Yeah, I’d drop $6 just to avoid being, uh, dropped.
I checked with Ampersand to see if Topical Edge could coexist with embrocation or if there were any tricks I needed to follow. The advice I received was simply to apply Edge first, then add the embro.
It’s rare that I encounter a product that actually makes a difference in my performance. Skratch Labs drink mix did that for me, as have gels and chews; as I’ve aged, those products have made an even bigger difference for me. Topical Edge was something I I figured would make a difference, but one one radical enough for me to see in my Strava file. Color me surprised.
Final thought: There’s a Sugarloaf here in Sonoma County. It’s even steeper. Consider it a rematch.