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.
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.
Some years back I turned in a review of a bike that opened with my biggest criticism of the bike—its weight. As diplomacy goes, it rather missed the mark, but my thinking was that with that obvious defect out of the way, I would have the opportunity to go on to discuss the bike’s many strong points.
My editor returned the review to me and suggested that a great many people (maybe even me) would be happier if the review could open on a more positive note. I obliged and was more or less pleased with the result.
There’s a very good chance I didn’t learn my lesson back then. Witness how I open this review of the Mad Alchemy PRO Plus Chamois Cream.
Chamois creams aren’t meant to smell edible. They should smell pleasant. They should smell clean. They should, perhaps, even smell vaguely antiseptic. However, they should never smell like lemon pie.
Except maybe this once. The PRO Plus floods my nose with the smell of creamy lemon so perfectly that each time I open the stuff I have to remind myself not to swipe a fingerful of the stuff on my tongue. With the look, feel and smell of pie filling, consumers could be confused into thinking this stuff is edible. And that’s literally the worst thing I can say about it.
The cream is veggie-based, so even though it may be edible, I’m not recommending that as a selling point. The real upside of its formulation is that it avoids a number of additives (such as parabens) that folks have become increasingly concerned about. It’s fair to say some junk doesn’t belong on your junk.
Whether you apply the cream to yourself or your shorts can make a big difference in how much cream you use and how effective it is. Some folks tell me they use cream like they are greasing a bearing race on their rain bike. I tend to use just enough to cover the contact areas that I have previously managed to chafe. Even so, there are times when the shock that comes with a mentholated chamois cream is more than I can handle that early in the day; having one with no appreciable zing is nice.
As I mentioned, the consistency of the PRO Plus is remarkably like pie filling. That is, too creamy and viscous to pour, but easy to spread with a finger or two. I believe that’s an important factor in its ability to prevent chafing; were it too slick, it wouldn’t provide the protection necessary to do the job.
In the end, a great chamois cream is a bit off the radar. When it does its job best, you never notice. So when I say this stuff is unremarkable, that’s praise, high praise at that.
PRO Plus goes for $17.95 for a 4 oz. jar. Coming from a made-in-America, one-man-operation that uses top-shelf ingredients, that’s a steal.
Learn more here.
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.