Embrocation for Spring

By Jed Kornbluh, Senior Cycling Editor

Embrocation to keep you warm, photo by Matthew Reece

Spring has arrived faster than usual this year and, for cyclists, that means a transition of not just indoor to outdoor riding, but of choice in apparel. Riding in the spring can be tricky – leave the house and it’s 35 F and misty, but by the turnaround point in your ride the mercury can climb to 50s and you don’t want to be stuck wearing your warmest winter gear and sweating live a sieve all of the way home. Riders have a few options here and one of them isn’t another layer of fabric.

For years, Europhiles have known that “knee warmers” could be applied via a thin layer of a greasy solution comprised of essential oils, herbs, secret spices, and petroleum jelly, better known as embrocation, or embro. This simple pro trick went from the stuff of legend to a fairly commonplace practice within the past few years. What was once a ritual of the continental riders changing in dank Belgian cottages or the back seats of cars before the start of a local kermesse is now a standard among riders around the USA.

Embrocation originated as a veterinary liniment for massaging race horses and, until recently, was historically difficult to find in the States. The salve is used to coax tight muscles into supple, race-ready form prior to an event, increasing blood flow and, if required due to inclement weather, protect with a thick layer of petroleum or other water-proof gel. For colder weather, an embro with more intense “heat” (think cayenne pepper extract) will add the benefit of keeping the rider’s legs warm as the heat and sweat from pumping legs will activate the oils, sometimes lasting for hours after the initial application. More than a few riders will attest to the post-ride reminder of their embro’s heat once they step into the shower.

Apply a thin layer of embrocation, photo by Matthew Reece

Through the 1990s, brands like Agu and Born were available via specialty importers, though the purist would have to special order their favorites as they were tough to find on the shelves of local bike shops. Thankfully, a few enterprising folks noticed a gap in the marketplace for quality embrocation made with traditional, natural products and the greasy leg balm is now seen in most shops throughout the USA, with many new brands popping up each year.

Embro is made with levels of heat. In other words, there are different intensities appropriate for the every-changing conditions of transitional seasons. One might choose to rub a “warm weather” mixture on their legs in late summer to provide protection from rain or wind while not heating the legs too much, while the same embrocation won’t be as effective when heading out for a 5-hour death march in January – for that ride, one would seek a balm with much more “heat.”

Application is simple: Rub a liberal amount on your legs until they glisten like Andrei Tchmil at the start of Paris-Roubaix ‘94. Once worked into the skin, the embro will last for hours and provide the warmth and protection of knee warmers, but with a little extra P-R-O. But beware, embro with more intense heat will remain on your fingers and burn anything they touch for hours, so make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after each use and keep your fingers out of your eyes, nose, and mouth. Removal is trickier: Use castile soap and a strong loofah, but assume that a little embro will remain, keeping your legs toasty until the oils wear off. A few companies offer embrocation removal creams and scrubs, but good old fashioned soap and water is best.

Jed has been around cycling his entire life – his parents own a tandem shop in New Jersey and he’s done just about everything there is to do in the bicycle industry: racer, bike messenger, ham-fisted lousy mechanic, coach, salesman, sourcing agent, and entrepreneur. In 2015, Jed sold his share in clothing company Sommerville Sports and has since been focusing on other pursuits, including getting back to his love of writing, riding a lot, and figuring out how to live in New England. Expect articles on bike packing, cyclocross racing, beer tasting, and general adventuring.

Jed resides in Connecticut with his family, dog, cat, and bicycle collection.