For cyclocross racers and other cyclists who ride in cold weather, applying warming embrocation cream to legs is as much a part of preride routines as pumping up tires or ratcheting shoes. (And carefully removing it is just as critical!)
Embrocation cream works as a chemical irritant: While cold weather causes your blood to retreat to your core and warm essential organs, embro redirects blood back into your lower extremities by stimulating blood vessels in your legs, letting you ride in relative comfort.
Over the years, different brands have introduced options ranging from ultra-hot for the cyclocross racer who wants to sweat at a start line despite frigid temperatures to gentle warming with an infusion of CBD for those who just want a bit of added protection for a leisurely fat bike adventure or even for post-ride application.
Whether you’re an embro novice or have been lathering up for years, here are some facts you might not know.
Was embro originally developed for cyclists? Neigh!
It’s believed Belgian cyclists were the first humans to smear warming chemicals on their legs to compete in cold weather, but horse owners have been using embrocation on their stallions for well over a century.
Hotter than a habañero
So what’s embro made from? Early recipes were primarily petroleum-based, but today, many brands (including Mad Alchemy and Enzo’s) use different, often plant-based ingredients. Expect to see beeswax, grapeseed oil, and capsicum (or another hot-pepper extract) in the ingredients list. Some brands like Floyd’s of Leadville are experimenting with CBD infusions to add an anti-inflammatory component, while brands like DZ Nuts use wintergreen and tea tree oils to add to the capsicum’s warming feeling.
Hot peppers’ spiciness is rated on the Scoville scale; a jalapeño rates around 10,000 Scoville heat units (SHUs), while the habañero pepper achieves between 100,000 and 350,000 SHUs. The pepper extract used in Enzo’s Embro Stick reaches 1,000,000 SHUs, according to Enzo’s Wayne Simon. While the heat of the final product is diluted, thanks to the varying quantities of oils and waxes in each company's formula, that still packs a serious punch.
That’s why most embro experts apply it with gloves (disposable surgical gloves work best, but you can also use a piece of cellophane or a snack-sized baggie in a pinch), lest you accidentally rub your eyes or go to the bathroom afterward.
Depending on the brand of embro, your legs might have a slight orange tint after applying. This might be a little disconcerting, but don’t worry—it’s natural.
How warm are your legs, really?
Your legs may feel warm, but it’s a chemical bait-and-switch; you’re still at risk for frostbite or other cold-weather ailments. The thin layer will protect you somewhat from the wind and elements, but in sub-freezing weather, you’re better off using thermal tights instead of, or in addition to, embro. That’s why most cyclists will stick to layering on more clothing rather than steamy-hot embro for training rides.
The warmth in your legs might fool you into thinking you don’t need to warm up for a race, but ’cross veterans know that, while there might be a slight performance benefit to the embro, you still need to spend at least 30 minutes on the trainer beforehand.
There’s a right way (and many wrong ways) to put on embrocation
Always apply embro after putting your bib shorts on. As you might imagine, your chamois could scrape off some of the embrocation as you pull those shorts on, leaving you with a burning sensation in the absolute worst place possible. Nobody wants to hear the swearing and screaming that accompanies that particular mistake.
If you use chamois cream, always put that on before the embro. Because most embro makers also have their own line of chamois cream, it helps to avoid using the same brand or container type for both, for fear of mixing up the two; for example, you might use a tube of Chamois Butt’r and a jar of Mad Alchemy Gentleman’s Blend embrocation. A stick format like Enzo’s may be ideal for those who really don’t want to mix up the two.
Embro should always be among the last things you put on when kitting up, and a little goes a long way, so start with a small amount. When applying it, channel your inner massage therapist and really knead the cream into your muscles and tendons for full effect (remembering to wear those gloves!). Expect it to take up to 20 minutes to activate.
Water will heat it up again
The problem with embrocation is that while the warm feeling fades over the course of the ride, it comes back in full force when you hop in the shower. Because embro reacts with water, so the chemicals reactivate during your post-ride shower. Your legs will go from simmering to scorching in seconds. To lessen the effect, wipe off as much as possible beforehand using baby wipes or a washcloth, as well as liberal amounts of water and dish soap in order to cut through the oils. Mad Alchemy even has gone so far as to make an Unbrocation Rinse to help speed up removal.
It has more uses than just cold weather riding
You may want to try embrocation during shoulder season as a way to extend your shorts-wearing days or while riding in a drizzling rain in the spring or early summer, since there are plenty of gentle formulas on the market that will warm your legs without setting them on fire and help water glide right off the skin, like Mad Alchemy’s mild blend. In fact, Mad Alchemy even makes a non-warming embrocation that offers moisturizer in the form of grapeseed oil, plus a slight tingle as well as a bug repellent thanks to mint and eucalyptus—perfect for summer rides.
And if you’re looking for the ultimate post-ride relaxation after a snowy fat bike jaunt, consider Floyd’s of Leadville’s CBD-infused warming cream, which will leave your legs feeling warm thanks to cinnamon, arnica and camphor in addition to the recovery benefits of CBD.
You’re always going to want to go hotter
Like any addict, you’re going to develop a tolerance to your drug of choice—in this case, capsaicin. So, over time, you’ll need a hotter embrocation to feel the same effect.
“These days, it takes Hot Mad Alchemy to get me race-ready,” said Mad Alchemy founder Peter Smith.
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