Feel the burn
How did the pioneer cyclists endure riding bare-legged for hours in freezing weather? Iain Treloar discovers the magic of embrocation.
The early history of competitive cycling is a procession of determination and courage in the face of adversity. In the days when outside mechanical assistance was banned in the Tour de France, Frenchman Eugène Christophe lost the race lead after being forced to weld his broken bike back together. In fact, the same fate befell him in three editions of the Tour, as well as frostbite ending his chances during Milan – San Remo. But exploits like these are a flickering sepia remembrance of a bygone era; surely the more primitive and romantic elements of the sport have ebbed away? Happily, this is not entirely the case.
This winter, for the first time, I came across a traditional riding practice rooted in Victorian times but still used today by hardy enthusiasts (mostly in cyclocross events). Called ‘embrocation’, at first glance this appears to be equal parts massage, menthol and placebo effect. In even the most frigid and wet conditions, embro-advocates ride bare-legged, with only a specially concocted liniment rubbed into their exposed skin for protection. Appropriately, given the country’s tough cycling reputation, it is colloquially known as wearing ‘Belgian knee warmers’.
Comprising a combination of natural ingredients, these massage oils and creams work as both a protective layer and a warming agent. As a point of reference, imagine Deep Heat or Tiger Balm crossed with Vaseline, paired with minimal lycra and horrible weather. In researching various embro recipes I entered a murky virtual world that was equal parts naturopathy and sorcery. In online cycling forums the world over, committed embrocologists discuss their preferred magical cold-deflecting potions in a witches-from-Macbeth kind of a way.
Opinion on its value is split: sceptics cited hearsay that embrocation makes the legs colder by bursting blood vessels under the skin, while supporters rave about the insulating properties of their particular liniment. About the only thing the two camps agree on was to put knicks on before embrocating, thus avoiding dragging traces of the volatile ointment up into one’s nether regions.
With a weekend of particularly grim weather looming, a cyclocross bike to test, and a sample of Rapha’s Winter Embrocation cream (beeswax, shea butter and “a fragrance inspired by the plants and herbs of Mont Ventoux”) at the ready, I had an ideal opportunity to test this peculiar cycling custom. In the interests of solid investigative journalism, after slathering my legs I rashly decided to test the accuracy of reports of groin burn. After a bashful basting of the aforementioned region, what started as a warming tingle built in intensity until my crotch was ablaze with the fury of a thousand suns. Mercifully, it soon dwindled to a mere inferno.
That moment of inquisitive stupidity aside, the embrocation on the whole was a positive experience. With a herbal scent like a nostalgic half-memory of locker rooms (minus the bluster and clouds of Lynx deodorant), I was comforted by the thought that even if my frostbitten legs fell off, at least they would smell nice.
Soon after heading out I was drenched by steady sheets of cold rain, and with tyres scything through silty riverside mud, my initial skepticism unraveled. Not only were my legs still warmish, but any water hitting them beaded and rolled off. For a couple of hours there was a pleasant mild burn. Despite the single-digit temperatures, I was comfortable and enjoying myself. Impressed, I rode home and jumped in the shower where the water promptly reactivated the lotion, scorching my legs until I could yelpingly scrape off the excess.
On reflection, it was one of the better riding experiences of my life, and a timely reminder of the romantic ideal of cycling. Embrocation evokes a rich history of the bicycle and the stubborn pioneering spirit of the past. The bicycle’s come a long way since, but amid the carbon fibre and aerodynamics it’s nice to know that there are some sticky legs out there, pedalling the past into the future.
Make your own
Try some of the following recipes:
- Deep Heat + Vaseline
- wintergreen + baby oil (or olive oil if wet weather)
- 4 parts tiger balm oil + 12 parts distilled water
Otherwise, the following ready-made types are well-regarded and available online or (with a bit of hunting) in a few stores:
- Rapha Winter Embrocation
- Mad Alchemy
- DZ Nuts
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