Your legs getting cold, when the temperature drops, is a side-effect you have learned to “accept” as an inevitable part of the winter/off-season. Layers and willpower have seemed to do the trick. One question has been bothering me: “How can cyclocrossers ride in the dead of winter with bare legs?!?!?!?!” Willpower can sometimes border with plain madness I assumed. Somebody mentioned that they have warming oil rubbed in their legs, so I got to searching I came to the term embrocation – the act of rubbing oil into parts of one’s body or the aforementioned lotion or liniment. Cycling embrocation has become synonymous with the brand Mad Alchemy – a one man operation started by Peter Smith, creating products devoid of synthetic and petroleum based ingredients. A cyclist himself, he is no stranger to the rigors of cyclocross and riding in cold rainy days. Although the Flandrian/Dutch weather is part of the romance of the Spring Classics, if you like myself have to ride through it daily for months on end, it’s not a charming experience. So I decided to give Mad Alchemy a try. First, I want to make something clear, embrocation is NOT a substitution for tights and leg warmers when it is really cold. For some reason people call embrocation Belgian Knee Warmers; I will have to bust that myth for you; starting from mid October I have not seen a single person here riding with bare legs; except some, though not all, cyclocrossers during races.
The “Thing that Makes It Burn”
“The thing that makes it burn” is capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot peppers. It does NOT produce heat, but rather dilates your blood vessels (hence your skin gets more red color) so more warm blood can circulate and…. uh… warm you up more. In cold weather the body’s natural reaction is to constrict blood vessels so that the core temperature remains constant protecting your organs; as a result your toes and fingers start freezing – “To hell with them, I need my liver more!” An aside: the heat/blood needs to come from somewhere. Therefore when you are working hard there is plenty to circulate around so it can directed to embrocated parts of your body. If you are cold and immobile, capsaicin is not a substitute for warm clothing. Capsaicin binds to pain receptors as well, altering the whole sensing of pain neuronal signalling, therefore it is used in topical creams against arthritis joint pain, etc. I have lower back injuries and a 0.0050% capsaicin creme has been my savior for years when the pain flared up. A rule of thumb: the more sensitive and/or well supplied with blood a part of skin is the less, if any capsaicin you will need. Therefore no embrocation anywhere near your chamois, eyes or nose! Legs and feet, lower back, neck and shoulders are usually where embrocation finds it place.
Mad Alchemy embrocation comes in different blends with recommended weather conditions/temperatures. This is based on bare legs so if you add tights or knee warmers you can extend the range.
Mellow (35-70F or 1.5-21C)
Orange in color with a definite cinnamon cola smell. It immediately made me think of my college years in the foothills of the Adirondacks, changing autumn colors and Halloween.
Medium (Russian Tea) (30-65F or -1 to 18C)
Slightly darker orange than the Mellow,with a bouquet of orange peel, citrus and cinnamon. Unscrewing the lid send my mind wondering over Christmas decorations…interesting.
Madness (0-30F or -17 to -1C)
Dark orange, almost brown in color with quite a lumpy sandy appearance, with a strong cola smell. During application it seems a lot more liquid than the Mellow or Medium and the smell is strong and almost medicinal. Once applied though, it smells quite nicely…Mad Alchemy is the best choice of words here.
My Ideal Embrocation
If I would have a ‘personalized’ blend, I would certainly go for a Madness heat level coupled with woodsy smells and a hint of citrus/herbal top notes – just like those dark belgian beers that give you post ride enjoyment in those Dutch/Flandrian chilly and wind swept days.
It is about appreciating the full process before you hit the road; from the application until the capsaicin starts doing its magic. Embrocation just like vinyl records is about the experience of putting something on and really taking the time to enjoy every aspect of it, without rush or haste. When you gently rub the cream into your legs, the smells of the essential oils, help you get both physically and mentally ready for that cold and rainy ride.
This is where the magic happens. The embrocations are solid at room temperature, however, as soon as you touch them, they become liquid. Get some on the tip of your finger and gently massage it on your legs – front of the quads, knees, calves, and anywhere where you would want the warming effect. A little goes a long way. The embrocation spreads into a layer that is never fully absorbed to your skin, so you are left with a nice orange sheen. This ‘layer’ causes water to bead off your legs when it rains. It works better on shaved legs, otherwise you are just adding precious product to your leg hair with no effect. You can apply a second layer for extra weather protection, however, if you are wearing tights/knee warmers above I find it unnecessary.
Embrocation needs to “activate” first before you go out (at least 15min, for me it takes even longer) – the burning needs to start before you hit the road. Otherwise your body shuts down your blood vessels to protect you from losing heat before the capsaicin has any say on the matter. I found that out when even the Madness didn’t work for me when the temperatures were just a touch above freezing. It reheated like mad after the ride so I knew I was not immune to it. Before you take a warm shower scrub your legs with dish detergent or bar soap so that most of the embrocation can be washed away otherwise even lukewarm water will feel like it is burning your legs!
Remember it is about appreciating the full process before you hit the road; from the application until the capsaicin starts doing its magic. Embrocation just like vinyl records is about the experience of putting something on and really taking the time to enjoy every aspect of it, without rush or haste. When you gently rub the cream into your legs, the smells of the essential oils, help you get both physically and mentally ready for that cold and rainy ride.
Mad Alchemy products are not available outside the US directly, so I had to order mine via eBay, etc so shipping can cost as much as the products themselves. I understand it has to do with permits and labeling requirements aka petty bureaucracy.
I am not sure if Peter Smith plans to expand or whether there is a market for that stuff here, (I have seen big brand warming gels on store shelves), however, I can certainly be an advocate for his products.