Okay, let’s get something out there between us right away: Los Angeles and winter are as well acquainted Pat McQuaid and common sense. It’s not that one is hostile to the other, they’ve just never been introduced. It gets colder in Los Angeles during the months of December, January and February, but that doesn’t make it winter. Similarly, women race bicycles, but that doesn’t mean they deserve a minimum wage.
Wait … what?
Let’s move on. Winter. I’ve had this stuff for nearly a year. Why? Friends who had tried the Rapha Winter Embrocation told me is was spicy. Around these parts that’s code for “too much heat for the South Bay.” So I waited out our mild spring. And our unambitious summer. Even our tame fall.
I wasn’t presented an opportunity to even try this stuff until December. That was the first time temperatures dropped below 50 degrees. And this stuff proved to be warm. It did just the trick out on the road, keeping the legs both warm and shiny and smelling like a medicine cabinet from 1964. Heavy on the wintergreen with hints of lavender, cypress and juniper berry.
So how hot is this stuff? I’d give it a 6. It’s about the same as a Mad Alchemy medium, which is a good, all-pupose heat for most places that actually experience something like four seasons. The more I type, the more I destroy my own street cred. Step away from the keyboard, sir.
Frankly, all that stuff is just data. Here’s what makes the Winter Embrocation amazing. It’s a self-contained experience. Consider a time capsule in a cream. From the metal canister with the embossed screw top (which reminds me of the old metal film canisters from my youth) to the rich perfume, the embro evokes a bygone time. But that’s only part of the attraction of this concoction. While I respect that not everyone loves Rapha stuff (usually because it’s more expensive than a Fabergé egg), they do a remarkable job of conveying their obsession with cycling.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I saved packaging from something, but the box the embro arrived in is so cool I’ve been unable to throw it out so far. The pink seal on the box let’s you know unequivocally that you are beholding a Rapha product. But the seal bears a short note about Mont Ventoux, just as two of the four sides of the box are splashed with a photo of Mont Ventoux shot near the Simpson Memorial. On another side they reveal the connection of Mont Ventoux to the embro: The scent is taken from native flora in the area. All of the Rapha skincare products share this association with the flora of Provençe. You should try the soap. It’s like bathing in lavender itself.
Texture and consistency in embrocations doesn’t get discussed enough. I have to say that the consistency and feel of the Winter Embrocation is spot-on. It’s creamy enough to spread easily without having a watery feel. Unlike some embros, this one will travel well.
A 4.2 oz.tin goes for $27. While that’s a bit more expensive than some embrocations, it’s not so expensive as to continue to cultivate Rapha’s reputation as more expensive than everything else, save Assos. You can find out more here.
On a couple of occasions in my life I’ve seen old-school soigneurs in action, up close. Their pre-race rituals are impressive less for what they are than what they betray about consistent deep-tissue massage. I’ve watched soigneurs perform pre-race massages in which they so loosened muscles that they could push their thumbs deep into a hamstring without a trace of resistance. Frankly, it looked kinda surreal.
The years have taken a toll on me. These days, I’m a bigger believer in the value of massage than even when I was racing both days of every weekend. Using an embrocation is a chance to give my legs a pre-ride massage and the benefit I experience is readily apparent. There’s a hill less than a mile from home, one I have to climb at the start of nearly every ride I do. While I haven’t performed any double-blind studies with control groups and other assorted scientific whatnot, I began noticing that on days when I was wearing embro, I felt better on that hill than if I was wearing knee or leg warmers. I didn’t have any agenda and didn’t start with a theory of any sort; I just started noticing that on some days I felt less stiff when I hit that hill. Actually, what I noticed was that some days I rode a little faster than other days.
Initially, I attributed it to how recovered I was. Then I noticed that sometimes I felt good even at the end of a higher-mileage week. Eventually it occurred to me that I ride a bit better when my legs smell good. Some of this, I must confess, doesn’t even involve my legs. After I massage the embro into my legs, I make sure to hit my left shoulder and lower back. Adding some heat there does a lot to loosen me up before the ride. The trick is to do it as early as possible after rising, and then avoiding contact with my son and the cats.
That’s just bound to end in tears.
Hibros is Italian maker of embrocations. And they have a selection of products like the Rolling Stones have albums. In looking through their selection at Interbike last year, the device above caught my eye. It is a pump dispenser for embrocation. Not only that, it features a dial indicator in the front that allows you to decide just how much heat you apply.
If there was one thing that fascinated me about watching Euro soigneurs in action it was seeing how they’d mix embros the way painters mix oils on a palette. They’d get a finger of this, a couple dabs of that and a drop of this other as they worked. And depending on whether they were working on hamstrings, quads or calves, that mix would change. To my eye it was a kind of sorcery.
The embro comes in replaceable cartridges and I was pleasantly surprised to find that you can’t screw up and install the no-heat cream in the heat slot and vice versa. Imagine the shock you’d get if you could put the heated version in the no-heat side. That brings me to my one knock against this stuff. Even when turned up all the way, the heat in this embro is pretty modest. Temperature-wise, it ranks below a Mad Alchemy “mellow” and Record Pregara Forte. I found I really only used it in late spring and cool summer mornings. Once conditions cooled off for fall, I switched to other stuff.
I like the feel of the cream and the smell, which leans heavily on menthol and camphor, is decidedly old-school.
As not everyone is a fan of parabens (which are generally used as preservatives in cosmetics), I need to mention that the Hibros embro does include several parabens in its list of ingredients. If you tend to be sensitive to them, there are other options out there. The dispenser with two cartridges lists for $44 and 75ml replacement cartridges list for $15. Online I’ve found both for 10 to 15 percent less. You can check out Hibros stuff here.
My education in embrocation (say that three times fast) came not from some Dutch soigneur who had prepared the legs of legions of chiseled Euro PROs as near-freezing rain fell. No, I got the decidedly less sophisticated advice from teammates. They were smart guys who had raced in Europe, but as it happens with all third-hand information, there were helpful bits that either no one ever told them, or were simply omitted by accident.
When I began purchasing embrocations, sorting through some of the Euro product lines was as difficult as making Hollandaise sauce, something I’ve still never done correctly. There were the embrocations themselves, but there were also pre-sport oils and liniments. And then there was post-riding stuff, too. The great source of my confusion was in distinguishing between an embrocation and any other pre-sport sauce. I mean, you’ve got to put the embro on before sport, so aren’t they both, technically pre-sport?
Eventually I came to understand that sometimes you put on a little extra heat before using another embrocation to seal your legs from cold rain. God how that helped me during spring races. And if you have an actual soigneur to do a massage before your race, you live in a realm where embrocation takes on the complexity of calculus.
That was never me. Post-sport rubs and their mission continued to elude me for years.
Funny how one injury can change everything. There are times when you need to ice something. I’m thinking a body part, not a gangster. There are also times when either keeping ice on that body part will be impossible (driving is one good reason) or there is simply no ice available. That’s when I realized that a cooling cream can be handy.
That said, most smell like a Mid-Century Modern medicine cabinet and leave the skin greasy to the touch even an hour later. Not a fave. Recently, I’ve been using a cream from Sportique called (obviously enough) Cooling Cream.
It’s heavy on the peppermint, menthol, camphor and eucalyptus oils. Wearing this stuff while eating a Peppermint Stick Clif Bar leaves me feeling like I’m at a candy cane factory at the North Pole. A terrific feeling, on balance.
There’s probably even less science on how a cream like this will do the same good (or even nearly so) as actual ice. I consider it a hedge in my favor; it has got to be better than nothing. Any time I have to drive to the start of a ride, I pack this tube in my bag so I can hit my shoulder with it once I’ve finished my field shower.
The 6-oz. tube has a suggested retail of $19.95. As I use only a little dab at a time, it could last me a few years, or at least until Alberto Contador’s case is adjudicated.
Learn more here.
Every now and then you slip down the rabbit hole and aren’t even aware how it happened.
Last fall, Byron from Bike Hugger referred a tweet to me in which the Twitterer asked just what embrocation is. I started to reply with a 140-character techsplanation and then realized (thank heaven) that I had promised the world I would try not to go all Dr. Spock on Twitter.
So I had some fun.
I suggested that embrocation is “heat in a jar, cream of courage, a forcefield of awesomeness.”
No sooner had I composed my little near-haiku that I realized I had an idea for Pete Smith at Mad Alchemy. As much as I love embrocations, start oils and chamois creams, the companies behind them rarely have any personality. They can be forgiven for that; giving a substance you rub on your body much personality can be like trying to draw a smiley face on a plank of wood. On the other side, if it had too much personality it could get creepy.
For reasons I can’t explain Mad Alchemy seems to have struck a balance between straightforward products and a brand with a sense of fun. So I fired off an email to Pete and suggested I had a name for a new product: Cream of Courage. His response: Let’s do a custom embro.
How could I say no?
I asked Pete to dash up something that smelled like a Provençal herb garden. Heavy on the lavender and rosemary and then improvise from there. He made several non-warming blends for me to try and following a second round we settled on a blend that leads with lavender, has a strong undercurrent of rosemary, plus dashes of sage and mint. It’s the sort of scent that lingers pleasantly in any room you enter. You become a one-cyclist air decorator.
Usually, we seem to be working the other end of the spectrum. Ahem.
Pete’s a genius. It’s unquestionably my favorite embro of all time, but then, it’s exactly what I asked for. (Though I gotta admit, last season’s Chris Jones Signature was distinctly amazing.)
Because it’s almost always chilly for my morning rides here in the South Bay, but rarely ever frigid, I went for a mellow heat which should be good enough to keep your gams happy into the 40s and has the staying power of the spring classics—this stuff will heat for six hours … more if you use it liberally.
Pete doesn’t seem to be desperate for business; he didn’t need this order, but I’ve really enjoyed doing this because I like him and what he’s about and this was way more fun than just writing another glowing review of one of his embros. This was a genuine chance to put my money where my mouth is.
Twenty years ago on a rainy May morning I lined up for a road race at the edge of the Berkshire Mountains.
Plot spoiler: I had no idea what I was doing.
Temperatures might, thanks to my generous memory, have hovered in the low 50s, but my clothing wasn’t up to the task. After absorbing all the water my clothing could possibly hold, I went hypothermic. I began shaking almost uncontrollably on the downhills and lost contact with the bunch on a relatively minor climb. I realized I was not, under any circumstances, going to finish the race.
For reasons I can’t explain, there were nearly a dozen non-neutral follow cars behind my race. When I pulled over, so did one of the cars. The event was as inexplicable as I was lucky. She drove me back to the start as I shivered and dripped on her car’s leather interior.
I grabbed my clothes and went inside the bike shop that sponsored the race. Inside a dressing room, my kit went shplorp on the floor. And I looked at myself. Aside from how wet I was, I realized I was covered in road grime. What to do? When I had lived in the South, I just drove home wet, muddy or whatever. In my cycling clothing. I had never before been both wet and cold following a race and I knew I needed to get dry STAT.
I ended up using my T-shirt to wipe off and then wore my sweater with no shirt. I vowed never to arrive at a race so unprepared again.
I began carrying a towel, and later added a washcloth when I rendered the towel unusable following a muddy mountain bike race. My learning curve was steep.
A year later I was at a race in Pennsylvania when a teammate scandalized a neighborhood by standing a few yards from a street corner—stark naked—and slathered his body with a Sea Breeze-soaked wash cloth. I realized he was onto something as far as getting clean, though I also thought that there might be room for a bit more discretion.
In addition to the towel, I began carrying water. Then I upgraded from a bath towel to a bath sheet. In 1996 I learned about the Sport Kilt. With all the features of a kilt and the added convenience of Velcro, I was sold. In seeking to be discreet, I noticed that passersby looked less if it didn’t look like you were wrapped in bathroom attire.
I added plain deodorant (no antiperspirant) in an effort to make post-ride refueling more pleasant for anyone in my proximity and as I had learned, that proximity was directly proportional to how hard the ride or race was.
The last and best trick I picked up on was given to me by a new mom. She turned me on to zip-locked bags of baby wipes. I added a little extra water to make them extra-moist. I’ve found nothing else as adept at removing embrocation.
I quickly learned that a regimen of a gallon of water on the legs to wash away sweat, grime or mud followed by baby wipes, a quick towel-off, then deodorant would allow me to dress, have a meal and drive home without feeling like Bill Murray after he got slimed in Ghostbusters. As nothing short of a proper shower could do anything for my hair, a baseball cap became as indispensable a part of my gear bag as that Sport Kilt.
For a while I traveled with sandals that made changing easy, but I could never get used to driving in them. Eventually, the sandals went in the trash and I went back to my high-school standby: slip-on Vans.
Naturally, no learning curve is ever complete. Any time I think there’s a chance conditions will be anything short of stellar, I bring along a plastic laundry bag equipped with a drawstring closure. A dozen years ago a friend and I went to a race in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The roads of the race were decorated with farm-field runoff. You can guess what flavor the air carried.
We cleaned up after the race and made a stop for lunch on the way home. Half an hour later I unlocked the car to a stench that made our eyes tear. We drove up the Grapevine, crossing the 4000-foot elevation mark in February with the windows open.
Whenever I think my gear bag should be smaller I remind myself that I’m glad I can no longer recall exactly how my car smelled.
Disclaimer: Mad Alchemy is an advertiser here at RKP. We hope you won’t be too surprised if we happen to like their products; it was our belief in their mission that made the relationship possible.
Checking out embrocations is a bit like candle shopping. The very first thing I do is unscrew the top and then bring the jar right up to my nose and inhale deeply. I enjoy the mystery of trying to figure out what ingredients have been combined witches’ cauldron style to give those creations their unique scent; it’s quite like wine tasting. As a candle shopper (and Yankee Candle fanatic) I never found candles labeled “Douglas Fir” terribly interesting. One-note creations lack depth and the adventure of figuring out the unique elements the give the blends their character. Show me a candle named “Christmas Cookie” or “Autumn Harvest” and I’ll show you a candle with some depth.
So it was that when I received the new Mad Alchemy Chris Jones Signature Blend that I opened the top, inserted my schnoz and breathed in what I detected were the very flavors of summer. It was distinctly mellow smelling and while that designation was more about the heat factor, I couldn’t help but think that descriptor was just as apt in metaphor. Coconut. That was the dominant tone of the scent and brought back memories of countless stunning beauties from my youth wearing Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion. Beneath that was the uncomplicated yet rich fragrance of vanilla.
The label sports a pastiche of the perennial favorite surf wax, a brand whose stickers transcended surfers themselves: Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax. While the connection between summer and surf wax made a certain amount of sense to me, it wasn’t until I went to the Mad Alchemy site and read Pete’s description that I understood the intersection point between Chris Jones, surfing and this embrocation. Aha!
Because how you apply an embrocation will affect just how hot it is, I have realized that I need less of a Mad Alchemy embro on my legs to get the job done than I would use with most other brands. The friends who taught me had learned the old-school Euro method of applying enough embro that their legs gleamed with a glossy car wax look and remained slick to the touch. I’ve found that if I apply that much Mad Alchemy to my legs the mellow will carry me into temperatures I don’t think of as, well, mellow. Pete rates this as being effective from as low as 35 degrees to as warm as 70. In my experience, I wouldn’t use this if the temperature was above 65 degrees and I go light on it if the ride is going to be three hours or less. I applied this before the San Luis Obispo Gran Fondo and eight hours layer it was keeping me warm on the drive home. Pete credits the embro’s staying power to ultra-fresh ingredients he was able to source for this blend.
One word of caution: Shea butter has a rather orangy tint to it and that can leave visible marks on white Lycra should you choose to wear some on a cool day.
This is one of those rare embros where, at least for me, the scent alone conjures the heat of a summer day, ensuring my comfort no matter what it’s like outside.
A 4 oz., recyclable jar goes for $21.95 and 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Just Go Harder Foundation.
Sportique is a European brand of skin care products. They specialize in all-natural creams, balms and oils. In addition to any number of products for ordinary folk, they offer some athlete and cyclist-targeted products. Frankly, in looking around their web site, I was a little overwhelmed at the sheer number of products they offer. These people really care about skin.
Last spring I got the opportunity to try some Sportique products. The first two I pressed into service were the Warming Up Cream and the Century Riding Cream (a review of which will follow shortly). As should be evident from the name, the Warming Up Cream is an embrocation.
One thing that immediately impressed me about Sportique was their, shall we say, New World approach to skin care. On their mission page there is a long paragraph devoted to all the ingredients they don’t use. From sulfate derivatives to parabens, the list is long and dominated by five- and six-syllable words.
Of course, the first thing you discover in any embro is the smell, and in this Sportique is pure Old World. It smells like what I imagine a Swedish massage therapist’s studio would. A wave of camphor, some spicier notes, it conveys comfort on a cold morning.
The cream is light and rather orange colored, and is as easily squeezed from the flip-top tube as toothpaste. This latter detail means you end up with no more on your hand or leg than is really necessary. And because it’s so light in consistency it goes a long way.
Capsicum is the coal that fires the furnace and this stuff is warms up reasonably quickly. How hot is it? On a 10 scale I give it a 5. By comparison, I give Mad Alchemy’s Russisch Thee a 6 and Record’s Pregara Forte a 3. And for those of you who need a nuclear option, there is the Get Going Cream which professes to be for “extreme conditions.” I’ve been dying to try it but just haven’t had any weather in the 90210 that could be called “extreme.”
This stuff has staying power. I’ve noticed it keeping me warm four to five hours into a ride, or after the ride, as the case may be. I don’t tend to use this stuff if I’m not going out at least three hours. I use Dawn to wash it off to the best of my ability, but on chilly days, I kinda like having personal leg warmers inside my jeans.
I took the Warming Up Cream with me to France this past summer because I knew there would be some days in the mountains that were both cold and wet. The fact that it came in a tube with a flip top made it ideal for traveling; I squeezed a little air out of the tube and shut it. There was no need to scoop it off the lid as with some brands.
I’ve yet to get through the 6 oz. tube, but then this wasn’t the only embro I used last season (and a few times this season). A tube goes for $19.95. You can find this and other Sportique products here.
Cycling is a to-do-list person’s paradise. From “oil chain before tomorrow’s ride” to “win Tour de France by age 25” cyclists can amass more boxes to be ticked and action items to action than there are gallons of crude headed for the Gulf Coast.
Lists aren’t exactly sexy, at least, not like a Campy C-Record crank or Brigitte Bardot circa 1968. But they are an indispensable part of preparation, the process of being ready.
Boy Scouts are taught to “be prepared.” In my mind, that’s thinking of contingencies. In racing that means training for each of the elements you’ll find in a race. You must do interval upon interval, sprint until your quads request a retread, learn to descend like you are pursued not by the peloton, but by cops.
The bike wash, followed by the bike inspection is as much a part of the arc of a week’s training as the riding and eating. As your miles go up, so does—hopefully—the bike maintenance. Seeing your bike dialed and ready before event day can do a lot to inspire confidence for the coming day and help you visualize a successful ride, no matter how you define it.
What we do to deliver on schedule is writ both large and small. After all, training isn’t as simple as some intervals and a sprint or two. Those are built on base miles which were planned well before the winter solstice.
And of course, there’s the day itself. For most of us there’s a kind of comfort that comes with the arc of the day. The routine has its elements and its timing. Alarm, breakfast, the odd extra cup of Joe, chamois cream, bibs, chest strap, base layer, sun screen, embrocation, arm warmers, jersey, socks, shoes, helmet, glasses, gloves. (Damn you, Theodore Dreiser.)
But after all the physical needs of preparation have been ticked, we are left with that most difficult apparatus—the mind. Mental preparation can do or undo a day more fully than any flat. If someone says he was unprepared for the difficulty of a race, rarely does he mean he hadn’t trained enough or didn’t have the right clothes on. No, he is saying that in his mind, he simply didn’t believe the day could be that hard.
And that’s the trick. Preparation is belief. Believing that you have done the correct training, that you are wearing what’s necessary, eating what works and have what it takes. Done well, you give yourself the confidence to ride to your fullest potential. But belief can trump the elements of preparation, and render them as irrelevant to your ride as the day’s news. There are days, special days, where for no obvious reason you feel good and know you’ll ride at the front.
The irony is, only the greatest champions are prepared for that sort of confidence on a daily basis.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Okay, so let’s begin with the disclosure. You’re already aware that Mad Alchemy is an advertiser here at RKP. Radio Freddy at BKW had reviewed some Mad Alchemy product and my interest was piqued by his review of the Mango Love. Pete Smith, the proprietor, got in touch to ask about ad rates; I was thrilled to hear from him. I responded by telling him I’d been curious to learn more about his embrocations. I had read the copy on his web site and it seemed apparent that he was doing more than just making some heat-bearing smelly leg creams. Proper embrocation seemd, well, a bit of a crusade for him.
He struck me as an all-in sort of entrepreneur. Pardon me while I dig him.
Pete sent a few products to try and began advertising. I’ve tried them all, and while I like them all, the product I’ve decided I most need to review is the Russisch Thee, a warming embrocation. He classifies his embrocations according to whether they warm or not and then he includes a “burn meter” to show you, relatively speaking, just how much heat they will generate. Honestly, there are a few European embrocation companies that could learn a thing or two about clear descriptions from the Mad Alchemy site.
The Russisch Thee, or Russian Tea, is named in honor a holiday drink Pete’s mother-in-law used to make. In its description he says its flavor is characterized by notes of cinnamon and clove with a hint of citrus. Pete considers it a “medium heat” embro.
I should stop here and level with you about something else. I’ve become a complete embrocation junkie. The way some women purchase perfumes or smelly candles I collect embrocations. Nothing against perfumes or smelly candles, mind you; I used to ride by Yankee Candle and love their candles to this day.
Where were we? Oh yeah: With a diverse assortment of embrocations to choose from in the morning, I’ve come to associate certain smells with specific conditions. In a funny way, it’s become a sort of double-check on my reading of the weather forecast.
Of course, that’s not to say I don’t get my choice wrong sometimes. However, to that point, I’ve come associate the smell of cloves, cinnamon and orange—the three leading aromas of the Mad Alchemy Russisch Thee—with a chilly day, a day that won’t reach 50 degrees.
The texture of Russisch Thee is creamy without feeling greasy. The orange color makes it easy to tell where it has yet to be massaged in sufficiently.
The heat in the Russisch Thee comes from capsicum; hot stuff indeed. It’s important to note that unlike with some embrocations where the heat comes on almost immediately, capsicum can take a little while to heat up. Be careful not to reapply just because you don’t feel anything initially. If it’s a cold morning, you might not want to leave this to moments before rolling out the door or those first few kilometers could be chillier than you had in mind. That said, when this stuff does get rolling it lasts longer than a four-course meal. Six hours is my rough count.
Naturally, anything that can make a 45-degree day feel like 70 degrees to your legs is something you’ll want to wash off your hands STAT. With a base of beeswax and shea butter it washes off with ordinary soap—no muss, no fuss.
On his site Pete includes an unusual endorsement of the Russisch Thee. Of all his embrocations, its the one he says he uses on race day.
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.