An old ritual in a sport rich with tradition, the act of embrocating is both an anachronistic affectation and an utterly utilitarian undertaking. Soggy Lycra knee warmers on a wet winter day can be more trouble than they’re worth, in which case, slathering on a layer of water-shedding burn balm so your shaved legs shine and your skin buzzes with heat is actually much more comfortable.
Ranging from “Ooh, that tingles,” to “Is my flesh melting?!” embrocation creams create varying sensations of warmth. Capsaicin—the compound in chili peppers that causes the feeling of heat on your tongue—is usually responsible for the perceived warming, but wintergreen, tea tree, and other spicy oils can be used as well. Other common features include scents, moisturizers, and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Waxes are sometimes added as a water barrier for defense against the bad weather.
Since embrocation creams create the sensation of warmth by irritating your skin, one thing to note is that they don’t actually increase blood flow to your muscles. They are acceptable for rides or races in less than extreme temperatures, but embrocation won’t save you from frostbite. Even though your legs will instantly feel ready to go, don’t skip your warm-up, because it’s an illusion. Your muscles may feel like they’re pumping with blood, but it’s really just your skin that’s burning. Because some creams can really burn, it’s best for beginning embronauts to use a mild to medium-heat formula, and increase the heat as more is needed or can be tolerated.
Among its adherents, the act of applying warming cream to exposed leg skin is an important cold-weather rite. Like any good ritual, there is an order of operations that must be followed to get the most out of your embrocation experience.
Before putting on your embrocation cream:
– Get your water bottles filled up, your gels stashed, and sunscreen applied
– The most important step is to put your shorts on first. This is important: put your shorts on before you apply embrocation! Pulling your chaomis over freshly embro’d skin will create a burning sensation that no breeze will soothe.
– Put your socks on too while you’re at it.
– Note: Embrocation is best applied to shaved legs.
Applying your embrocation:
First, fold your socks down and your shorts up about a half-inch to get full-coverage, but do try to keep hot embrocation formulas from under your apparel if you can avoid it. Get a nice dollop of cream on your fingertips and gently pat yourself down from the tops of your socks to the hem of your shorts. After the embrocation is distributed from hem to hem, go back to the socks and start massaging the cream evenly into your skin. Work your way up, making sure to cover all exposed skin up to the hem of your shorts. Wash your hands thoroughly after applying embrocation, and avoid touching your eyes, lips, nostrils, for as long as possible. Donning a pair of disposable gloves before applying isn’t a bad idea, to ensure you don’t accidentally spread any burn juice where it shouldn’t go.
After your ride or race day is over, scrub as much cream off your skin as you can before showering because water tends to reactivate embrocation. Use a face cloth, paper towels, baby wipes, or sandpaper (keep it to 800 grit and above) to remove the embrocation. Even after a meticulous washing, you’ll probably still enjoy a warm tingle for a bit.
As embrocation cream begins to achieve an almost culinary level of obscurity, described with metrics like nose, texture, and skin feel, it seems there’s an alchemist brewing a new offering every week—so there’s never been a more exciting time to jump on the bandwagon. The next time you head out for a cold, misty ride, eschew the warmers and instead slather some tingle tincture on your skin to tap into your traditional hardman. Eddy Merckx would be proud.