Embrocation is not a rub, or a method to stay warm, but a way of life. It’s a ritual, a humbling act, an empowering routine: an offering to the gods of cycling. At least that’s how the folks at Mad Alchemy live. It explains why they put so much care into their products; they live it. They obsess over it, they discuss it, they rub it in every day. Junkies sharing their fix with the world.
They’ve found their mantra and far be it for us to suggest it doesn’t work. Personally, we didn’t think we had the time to add this to our daily cycling rituals. Dressing takes long enough without getting most of the way there, then finishing pocket packing, then the last bathroom visit, then rolling up the shorts, rubbing in the sauce, and returning to the bathroom to thoroughly scrub the hands before venturing out while making sure not to touch our legs while pulling on our socks.
All the same, with five flavors of Mad Alchemy sitting by our dressing station, we figured we should try to live the life as they do. Embrocate in some way every day. With Non-Warming, Gentleman’s Blend, Mellow Heat, Medium Heat, and Russian Tea at our disposal, we had the goods to be prepared for everything autumn has to offer.
That Mad Alchemy stays away from petroleum products in their arsenal puts us strongly in favor of their liniment. Petroleum and spandex mix poorly, and a daily dose with our stretchy pants was not how we wanted to treat our specialty clothing.
Going in to this religious experience, we had several concerns. One was about getting the hot stuff on sensitive skin. No idea how much it would hurt, but if we’re working in heat every day, chances seemed good that the sauce would get on the chamois, or in an eye, or nostril. With that, we felt we needed a hand-cleansing ritual to follow to minimize those painful experiences at the start of rides. For the rides, we’ve always assumed that a non-petroleum-based rub would come off too easily in the rain, and as Mad Alchemy doesn’t work with petroleum, we feared this could be the case here as well. We also needed a body-cleansing method post-ride to minimize these things as well. And getting too much heat could be a problem during the ride and in the midst of the post-ride shower.
Taking in the fiery five
Since scent is an important part of the embrocation experience, we started by unscrewing the tubs one at a time to bathe in the aromas. Hold the jars close, let the smell waft to our nostrils. The Non-Warming embro’ has a hint of mint. The Gentleman’s Blend evokes a garden in the fall, woodchips and dirt. The Mellow is hard to get a bead on, though notes of cinnamon and red pepper come wafting out. Medium is harder to sense, though we can almost taste red pepper powder. Russian Tea, however, is a rich bouquet of tastes, very much a hearty and complex chai used to combat the cold. After imbibing each one several times, it seemed that our upper lip and nostrils were feeling the burn.
Secondary are the aesthetics. The tubs are attractive and fit well in our hands. The Gentleman’s Blend has an old-timey label while the others hew more closely to the Mad Alchemy aegis. Our favorite is the mix of colors and influences on the Russian Tea jar. In terms of the creams themselves, the Non-Warming appears to be a light color, almost as if it’s petroleum jelly, while the Gentleman’s and Mellow are a deep orange-red, and the Medium and Russian Tea are a bit darker still. The hues are warm to look at, though it’s the result of the warming ingredients, namely the capsicum annuum, chili pepper. And the percentage of chili increases as the rubs get hotter.
We decided to test them all out, starting with Non-Warming and working our way up to Russian Tea. We’d try them according to air temperature, according to our planned efforts, and according to the kind of heat we wanted on our legs.
Post Application Hand Cleaning
Once enveloped in a layer of liniment, it’s time to clean the paws before heading out. With the Non-Warming, it isn’t so critical, though you probably want your hands to be rid of the non-warming for better grip. On the road, the Alchemists recommend nitrile gloves, the latex-free, powder free, medical exam gloves doctors, mechanics, and toll-takers use. They’re rugged enough and disposable. We used soap and water, though it you’ll want to take more time when it comes to the warming lotions. On the road with the warming creams, we came with alcohol-infused wipes and used them after we rubbed in alcohol-based hand-sanitizer on our hands, just to make sure they’re rid of any hot stuff. Not crazy about hand sanitizer, but it travels well and is easy to use when there is no sink nearby.
Dabbing a finger into the Non-Warming, the solid substance gives way easily, demonstrating how thin the sauce really is. A bit more liquid than Vaseline indoors, thinner than many rubs we’ve tried, though not quite as thin as Rapha’s Winter Embrocation. Even though it spreads thin, it doesn’t feel oily. A dab or two on each quad, take care of the upper legs, dab around the knees, then two similar dabs on each shin and work the lower legs. Thinking ahead to the warming rubs, we decided to start high and work down, on the possibly flawed premise that by starting high we won’t go higher than safe. The Alchemists say take three to five minutes to work in the liniment, both to spread it thoroughly and perform light massage. The shine looks good.
Dressed, and ready to go, the legs look too good all shined up. Suddenly, we found ourselves concerned that this would increase sun exposure, like those people who lather up with baby oil before going out to the beach to “work on their tan.” We asked Dr. Brian Adams, a dermatologist who runs a sports dermatology clinic at the University of Cincinnati. His answer: “Theoretically that is possible but I don’t know if anyone has looked at that. Essentially, however, the intrinsic SPF should overcome any increase in the “sun sensitivity” afforded by the oil/wax.” Seems that there’s no proof that this sort of topical treatment increases the risk of skin cancer, though it is largely assumed. If you’re concerned, apply sunscreen before embrocating.
The sheen of the non-warming is great, and gets better when your legs start sweating. The perspiration comes through the lotion layer and dribbles down to your socks. The flip side is that dust and dirt and detritus stick to your legs. This could be seen as embodying Pro on your rides, but it also necessitates more post-ride cleanup.
Post-ride, we generally found we needed to take a towel to our legs to get off the dirt, but once we toweled off, we kept the rub remnants on our legs until we hit the shower. We’d like to believe that this was acting as a leg lotion, keeping our skin soft and moist in that time, but we have no proof of it, other than water beaded up on our legs in the shower.
We also tested out the Non-Warming in a light rain. Didn’t seem to keep our legs any warmer, and our legs definitely looked much dirtier over the course of the ride, but they cleaned up easy. In a heavy rain, you can see the water beading up on your legs and the dirt running down to your socks. The embro’ is definitely sticky enough to last through a rain, an initial concern we had.
With various warming balms, it’s important to keep in mind that individual experiences vary widely. If you check out our review of “Rapha’s Winter Embrocation, you’ll see we used it in the spring, and rarely did we find it uncomfortably hot. One of those experiences was in the shower. Maybe we spread it too thin, maybe our skin isn’t terribly sensitive, maybe we happen to ride “cool” much of the time; as a result, we tried over-dressing our torso on some occasions, not to the point of bathing in sweat, but a warmer base layer than we typically use.
Gentleman’s Blend is supposed to be the mildest of the warming rubs. The tub claims “mild embrocating balm,” and from the light woodsy scent to the soft texture of the liniment it feels gentle. The warmth it produces is similarly gentle. So gentle, we felt we barely noticed it. Even on warm days. Mostly, we were riding easy when we had the Gentleman’s on, so that might have had something to do with it. It seemed that the stuff “turned on” after we did a few sprints.
Mellow is supposed to be a bit warmer than Gentleman’s. It has a stronger scent, earthy with cinnamon and red pepper, but it goes on the same. We felt the heat more with the Mellow for sure. It was never uncomfortably hot, even when riding in the high 60s, though we noticed the scent more than anything at first and our legs didn’t react until after we put in a few hard efforts. Then, sometimes hours later, we’d take our shower and it would come on again and stay on for a while after the shower, provided we didn’t soap up our legs.
Medium is alleged to be warmer still. When taking in the scent, we sensed a slightly burnt red pepper. In a closed bathroom, we felt the chili in our nostrils and even our eyes. Not dangerous, but not the most comfortable experience either. After working in the Medium indoors, we could sense our legs were reacting, though the heat didn’t turn on right away. We tried it riding and running. We did a day of Fartlek intervals on a day of pouring rain with Medium rubbed into our legs. The temperature was in the high 50s, and we dressed light (jersey, shorts, base layer, vest) knowing that we’d be attacking every rise full-on. While our legs looked really good, we barely felt the warming sensation until we got home. Another day, we rubbed in the embro’, left the bike at home, and ran in shorts in 60-degree weather and didn’t feel the warmth come on until we were finishing up. We thought maybe it had to do with how hard we were going, so we tried it at a cyclocross race where the temp was in the high 50s. No warming there, though a dab on our back, under a skinsuit and base layer, was felt.
Russian Tea has the same strength as Medium, but it has a much more evocative aroma. It’s rather pleasant, like a mug of warm comfort on a cold afternoon. For us, it would warm our souls on a day of 40-degree cyclocross, but we’re only arriving at that time of year. Now it’s an interesting sensation to get in the morning. We tried the chai for another high-50s cyclocross race. Here, too, we noticed the warming on our back, not our legs.
Post Ride Cleansing
We tried a number of different cleaning routines. When at home, we used hand sanitizer followed by soap to wash our hands before going out on a ride.Post ride, we’d often use one baby wipe on each leg to get off the dirt and some of the embro’ followed by a shower with aggressive leg soaping. Even with these methods, we’d occasionally find the liniment “turning on” in the shower or that the sauce was still on a finger we used to get some grit out of an eye.
In terms of removal, the Alchemists recommend first scrubbing with a slightly damp cloth. They told us baby wipes work well, and we’ve found them helpful for taking off the dirt. They then recommend “washing with a surfactant type of citrus degreasing soap. Dish soap works well.” They’re right on that. Our dish soap with citrus did a very good job.
While we haven’t had a strong warming experience, it seems that this could be due to the vagaries of how each body works. A friend in southern California can take the mellow rub, slather a medium coat on his legs and feel the warming into the high 40s. He attributes the difference to living in a warm climate that rarely dips or rises year ’round rather than having to deal with extreme heat and winter cold.
Not sure if this is true. It’s possible that skin sensitivity changes over time. Some people get heat rashes after being in the sun too long, others who grew up with “Cajun seasoning” on the dinner table need lots of chili powder to notice any spice. We also have found that the warmer overall we are, the more we notice hot sauce on the legs. So maybe it’s just that cutaneous blood flow is reduced in us sooner than in others.
There has been some research into the subject. This study seems to demonstrate that quite a few people don’t have much of a response to capsaicin, another word for red pepper, when it’s applied to their skin. We seem to be among them. Don’t take our word for the absolute heat of the rubs unless you’ve found yourself fairly insensitive to counter-irritants in the past. In relative terms, we did experience the heats pretty much as the alchemists advertise.
Feeling it all day
While we didn’t always feel the Mad Alchemy rubs on our rides, we almost always felt them afterwards. By this, we mean that whether it was a one-hour cyclocross race or a four-hour road ride, we usually could feel the embro’ working on our legs sitting in a warm car or standing in the shower or after changing into our civvies. At first, it was frustrating, but, over time, we came to enjoy this feeling. Kind of like a light massage lasting a while.
The interesting thing is, there is a new theory about embrocation. It was mentioned in the November, 2011 Velo magazine in the article “Thaw Out” by Trevor Connor. “Some of the same studies” ones that cast doubt on liniment increasing muscle temperature “however, show that the sensation of warmth alone can improve performance, and the increased blood flow aids lactate clearance.” Of course, for this to work, you have to experience the sensation of warmth.
There are embrocation doubters out there. Cycling is a sport filled with lore, and liniment has its own chapter. We discussed the matter a bit in our review of the Rapha Winter Embrocation. Essentially, rubbing the creams in result in drawing blood to the skin to relieve the irritation that the application is creating. Some fear it will even make you colder because it potentially takes blood away from heating your core. It’s an interesting argument, and an answer hasn’t been found. Regardless of whether or not embrocation is actually making you warmer, if it makes you feel warmer, it’s doing something. For us, if it helps avoid wearing knee or leg warmers on a wet day, we see value in it. For the most part, wearing soaking wet clothing feels cold and uncomfortable, and the worst of it is when gloves, shoes, and tights are drenched. The gloves and shoes need to stay on, but if we can afford to do without the distraction of the wet warmers or tights on our legs as we’re pedaling, we’ll remove them.
After a month
Overall, we likes. Maybe it comes from using the stuff every day. First, there’s the texture of the rubs. Not nearly as greasy as some we’ve used, but still thicker than hand lotion. It’s easy to take a dab out and spread a thin, even coat on our legs. We liked some of the scent experience; the Medium was a bit too strong for our nostrils, but the others were rather pleasant. While post-application hand-cleansing needs to be thorough, we really like how well these liniments stick to our legs. If nothing else, the rubs seemed positive for epidermal health, something important as we’re getting to the time of year when skin seems to get particularly dry.
We thought we might find it meditative or a positive self-massage. If focus on a simple task is meditative, then it worked. We probably need to stop using for a few days to see if there’s a change. The positive effects of massage we didn’t sense, but maybe we didn’t work the rub in enough.
The funny thing is, after a month of daily embrocating, we’ve come to accept, maybe even enjoy, the process. Maybe it’s the classic problem of having a choice of tools at the ready; you better use at least one or you feel like you’re not taking advantage of your advantage. We’ve started applying it to our legs earlier and earlier in the hopes that the embro’ will turn on during the ride, or, at worst, come on as we’re changing into casual clothes so we can have the benefits of a light leg massage for a few hours after the ride. Like the people at Mad Alchemy, we’ve been talking about it, thinking about it, wondering if we’ve joined the junkies advertising their fix.