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.
Written by James Newman
Illustrations by Bill Cass
Two working stiffs get the chance to live the life of pros during a 2002 U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team training camp in Altea, Spain.
It is always a shock for me to see how little pro bike racers are in real life. Almost horse jockeys, they’re tiny. Even George Hincapie, at over six feet, is rail thin and maybe weighs a buck and a half. While watching the team file out one by one for a morning ride, I couldn’t help but recite their names and accomplishments in my head. “Cedric Vasseur—solo stage winner and yellow jersey owner for a few days in the ’97 Tour; Viatcheslav Ekimov—Olympic Time Trial gold medalist; Jamie Burrow—World Cup under 23 Champion …” and on and on. But when Lance walked out from the hotel’s back lobby, last of the team’s 21 riders, he seemed huge. Not thick, or excessively muscular, just simply larger than life. I was beside myself. It didn’t seem real that I was going to ride with the whole U.S. Postal Service team for a week.
Just two weeks prior, my old racing buddy, Dylan Casey, who was in his third year as a pro with the First Division American team, asked me to come down from Portland to the Bay Area for a visit right after the new year. Knowing that riding with him alone would mean certain suffering for me, I enlisted another close friend, Bill Cass, into the scheme. After all, misery does love company.
“I can get out of the office for a week at the end of January,” Bill told me on our first Saturday club ride after the New Year.
“That’s no good, Dylan will be at training camp with the team in Spain at the end of the month,” I said. We rode on our fender-clad bikes in silence for a few minutes as the nearly freezing rain numbed our bodies even through multiple layers of high-tech fabrics.
Bill broke the silence, “Hell, let’s go to Spain!”
Bill is probably best known to you through the illustrations that used to grace the pages of Bicycle Guide and bicyclist; he keeps himself busy with a day job as a footwear designer for Nike and creates the Ride for the Roses poster used by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. He and Lance stay in close contact; Bill developed the cycling shoes that the Tour de France champion has worn since his comeback from cancer. With the help of Dylan and Lance putting in the good word for us with team director Johan Bruyneel, Bill and I were given the green light. We boarded our plane after a minimum of planning, last minute training and, of course, talking our wives into our foolhardy plan.
I could clearly see that Lance Armstrong wass a leader and motivator. When the team is out training, Lance was in charge. Even from the back of the bunch where he spent the first half hour or so each day chatting with Bill or me, he called the shots. If someone didn’t point out a pothole, or stood up while pedaling and inadvertently shoved his bike backwards into the front wheel of the rider behind, Lance let him know. “Who owns that,” he asked as someone swerved while Lance hit the hole in the road. “Hey, take it with you,” he yelled as another of the riders stood up to pedal and Lance had to lean his front wheel into the other rider’s rear wheel to keep from crashing.
After those first few minutes each day with Armstrong, we never saw him again for the rest of the ride. Well, actually we could at times see him. If the road turned and we could make out the head of the group, there he was. Lance would stay on the front for nearly the entire ride. No matter how long the ride was, there he was—at the front, leading his team. Headwind, tailwind, uphill and down, Lance set the pace and rode like a motorcycle. He lead some of the smoothest, fastest five hour rides of my life.
That year the team had three camps instead of the usual two. The first camp was in Texas just before Christmas. A second camp in Tucson, Arizona was more business related and gave the press a chance to get interviews and photos of the team. The Spanish camp was designed solely for training the team of the reigning Tour de France champion. The swanky Hotel Metia Hills, which the Postal Service would be calling home for the next week, was, unfortunately, in a poor geographical location for cycling. The hotel and surrounding resort community sit atop a steep, mile-long climb. This simple “driveway” served to bring already broken men (Bill and me) to a state of groveling at the end of each day’s training ride.
End Part I