Reviewed: Rapha Winter Embrocation
Skin is the largest organ in the human body. It should be treated well for both short-term and long-term reasons. Comfort, performance, and health; to name a few. More importantly, because we enjoy riding, and know that sometimes our skin presents limitations we’d rather not have, we periodically investigate ways to help our skin in an effort to further help ourselves.
We don’t know if this is why Rapha decided to get into the skin care business. Regardless, they decided to get into a realm that only few clothing companies have dared tread before. They’ve designed their own chamois cream, embrocation, and soap. As with all of Rapha’s offerings, they’ve engineered these products to fit into their aesthetic in addition to performing well.
The cream and rub come in cylindrical screw-top tins. Don’t know if this is how the stuff came in the early days of cycling or not, but in a world where plastic and squeeze tubes are common, this departure is welcome. The tins are easy to hold, easy to open and close, and easy to grab a dollop or a few finger-fulls at a time. We’ve been trying to figure out what a good use of the tins will be when we finish the contents. Safety pins are too easy.
The skincare products all come with a seemingly hand-drawn map of Mount Ventoux, and a short story about an exploit on the famed slopes.
The cream, hot sauce, and soap also share herbal ingredients. The aromas will tickle your nostrils as notes underneath the sensations you get from whiffing them. You can sense the heat of the embrocation, the cool of the cream, and the cleanliness of the soap. At the same time, you’ll know that these three products are related.
No, you do not need to use them together. In fact, you don’t need to use them in conjunction with any other Rapha product, though the soap works well with their leather riding gloves. Since they are three products that are related yet separate, we’ll give each their own segment of this review.
Applying a hot cream to your legs before a ride is a celebration of the traditions of cycling and a supplication to the hard men heroes of yore. The cycling public is even more divided on embrocation than they are on chamois crème. There are those who believe that a rub can keep their legs warmer and there are those who don’t. Go to a cold, wet amateur road race and all you’ll smell is the dread. Go to a cold, wet pro road race and your nose will be overwhelmed by the variety of aromatic lotions applied to muscular, naked legs.
Rapha Winter Embrocation seems to be based on the same concept that drives people to drink black coffee. The only reason to use the stuff is because it is strong. Summer embrocation? Not sure what that would do.
There is lots of myth and lots of confusion about hot sauces. One person will tell you that they found X works but Y doesn’t. Another will swear by Y and hate X. You’ll hear people say that Z works some days, but not others. And more than one person will tell you that they didn’t think the stuff was working, but then they got into the shower and all of a sudden, their legs were burning.
Many aren’t sure what liniment does to begin with. To get a better understanding, we also asked Dr. Ross to comment on the uses of hot rubs in cycling. The simplest way to explain it is thus: It’s a topical counter-irritant. Or, “You put the stuff on to keep you warm. It irritates the skin and thus increases blood flow (to the irritated areas). However, it’s a double-edged sword. You can feel warmer, but you could get colder because it gives the heat to the air, so you’re potentially losing more body heat. You can put on embrocation and then cover.” It’s not going to change your core temperature, so he believes it’s more about comfort than anything else.
Just about every hot lotion has Capsicum in it. Basically, chili pepper. Think of the crushed red stuff you have in your spice rack, imagine it suspended hand lotion or petroleum jelly and you get the idea. Usually, it is mixed with lots of other ingredients. There is garden-variety stuff you can find at the drugstore, Ben Gay (which has aspirin in it), Icy Hot, Tiger Balm, and then specialty stuff you find a bike shops, like the Rapha Winter Embrocation.
They all should work on your skin, though people with lower body fat will notice the effects faster than people with higher fat. Since the quantities of the various ingredients typically vary from brand to brand, and some companies even have both hotter stuff and milder stuff, it makes sense that some feel hotter than others, and that some will feel better than others. But it’s hard to believe some don’t work, or some work only some of the time, though the ones with a higher percentage of capsicum should feel hotter and consequently seem like they’re working better in colder conditions. Some products you’ll enjoy the heat, some you won’t. The “greaseless” ones seem to get absorbed into the skin easily, while the greasier stuff seems to sit on top of the skin.
Dr. Ross notes that if it’s wet out, the greasy rubs, will stay on your skin longer, and will help provide a barrier, however thin, between your legs and the wet.
So, back to the times when people believe that a rub isn’t working. A more likely explanation is that your body is too cold to begin with, so even though the rub is irritating your skin, it isn’t enough to overcome your body’s directive to protect your core rather than circulate more blood to your legs. This is also why some rubs seem to suddenly recharge in the shower. The hot water is warming your core and your legs, allowing it to flow, and then, boom, the skin suddenly feels really irritated and your legs could feel really, really hot. When the sensation is mild, it’s kind of nice,
We decided to try the Rapha Embro’ on dry days and wet, when it was cold, cool, and even a bit warm. Rub it on and then pull over warmers, and on naked legs.
We started by making sure we were mostly dressed before applying. Shorts on, bathroom chores taken care of. Base layer on. Rolled up shorts. We used both hands to rub the stuff in well. It isn’t as thick as Vaseline, but it is thicker and greasier than hand lotion. The tangerine color was easy to spot initially, which made it easier to rub in. When completed, we’d pull on the warmers (for the days that we were putting warms on and then socks and then head to the bathroom to remove the rub from our hands. The Rapha tickles our noses, so we didn’t want to find out what it would do on other sensitive skin. A thorough hand washing, both front and back, as well as around the nails. We also tried hand sanitizer, as we imagined it would be a good way to clean our hands when we’re not close to a bathroom. Both the soap and sanitizer worked equally well. Baby wipes aren’t nearly strong enough.
The sauce seems to turn on slowly. Not sure if this is a result of being cool at the start of rides and then warming up or how the mix of ingredients works on the legs. The warmth stayed “on” for a long time, so long as our torso was warm. We found this to be the case in both the rain and the dry. Same with having knee-warmers on and having naked knees.
With “winter” in the name, it’s easy to think this rub isn’t for the warmer months. We’d disagree. Rides on 60-degree rainy days can be difficult to dress for. We usually go without a rain jacket, wearing a vest if we’re training and just a short sleeve jersey and base layer if we’re racing. Water on skin moving through air is a great way to drain your body, even on days like this. We used the liniment on our legs in conditions like this and it worked great. However, when we dressed too lightly for 50-degree rain, even the hot stuff couldn’t draw blood to our legs to heat us up. When we over-dressed for mid-40′s rain and applied the Rapha pre-ride, the rub kept our legs warm so long as we felt our torso warm. At the end of the ride, as we were getting cold, our legs got cold, too.
There were rainy rides when our body was dancing on the edge of being too cold, even with Rapha Embro on our legs. On descents, our torso would cool and our legs would feel cold. Then as we were halfway up the next hard grade, our legs would start to feel the heat again.
Ross thinks that at a certain point, the air is sufficiently cold, that even if your warmers were to get waterlogged, you’d be better off with having your legs with a layer of cream and then the warmers. We tend to agree, though soggy warmers are a lousy sensation.
The heat also seems to be long-lasting. We did one day where we rubbed the stuff in, put on knee warmers, rode 20 miles to a race, peeled off the warmers, raced two hours, then rode home. When we were riding hard, we noticed the heat from the rub in the middle of the race. The sensation nearly disappeared on the noodle home, then turned on again in the shower.
If you didn’t know it already, greasy lotions are virtual dirt magnets. While the result is a pro patina over your legs, it does take more cleaning at the end of the ride.
After using the Rapha Winter Embrocation in a variety of conditions over some months, we’re pretty happy with it. The heat comes on strong (provided we’re dressed properly) and stays on long. The olfaction makes us aware it’s a liniment, but the color and the herbal tones make the overall nasal impression a pleasant one. It is a bit more viscous than balms we typically apply to our legs, that means more work getting it spread evenly, but this is balanced by the fact that it stays on through all conditions. We don’t know how to measure the effect, but the ritual of thinking about embrocation, getting dressed, applying it carefully, and smelling the stuff on our legs on a wet day, is pretty powerful. It’s a meditation that can help focus on the ride, and if that can help you ride when the conditions are not exactly to your liking, it is a powerful lotion.