by Greg Evans
With winter chills just around the corner, cyclists are adorning themselves with more layers to cope with dropping temperatures. Long sleeves and insulated gloves will soon replace breezy jerseys and bare hands. While the added layers may keep the commuter warm, for hard charging riders, the bulky clothing can often lead to overheating behind all of that wind proof nylon. Thus, we are faced with the challenge of repelling the cold without the assistance of additional clothing. That’s when, for some, embrocation is useful. Some cyclocrossers turn to these muscle rubs to feel warm despite direct exposure to the elements.
Embrocation isn’t for everyone, and some pros use it religiously while others may use it only on a rainy day (see our feature on Pro Cyclocross Traditions in Issue 29). Thankfully for the embro fans, there are quite a few players in the embrocation game, and many are targeting us cyclocrossers due to our season’s timing and the fact that many ’crossers are also Belgian tradition-obsessed.
One small company is taking a craft beer approach to making embrocation, opting to produce their concoctions in small quantities here in the States. Los Angeles-based Small Batch Embrocation offers a range of little white tubs containing embrocation formulas that are self-proclaimed “for CXers by CXers.”
A one-man operation, Small Batch is run by Jim Ransweiler, a veteran cross racer and the head mixologist behind all of the embro recipes. Made from all natural ingredients, their product line features various embrocations with respective heat index ratings to give the consumer an idea of how much heat will suit their needs best.
Their tamest embrocation is called “C.O.C.” which features no pepper extracts and ranks at a reasonable two on the heat index scale. C.O.C. are the initials for the three main ingredients—cinnamon, orange and clove. The embro contains no capsicum, so the name is also (perhaps) a humorous razz on those who might be too chicken to feel the burn!
At the other end of the spectrum is the unnervingly titled “Smoke” which tops their lineup with a heat index rating of 10, and was designed for use when the temperature drops below freezing. They even produce a chocolate-scented embrocation for the chocoholic among us. The majority of Small Batch’s embrocations (with the exception of C.O.C.) supply the heat through capsicum, more commonly known as the active ingredient in hot peppers. The company also produces a no-heat muscle rub called “Spring” for easing achy bodies after a day of run-ups and remounts.
Jim over at Small Batch Embrocation was kind enough to send us a few jars to heat things up in the review queue. We received a jar of Jingle, a mid-level embrocation, as well as a Jar of their muscle rub, Spring. The first thing I noticed about the products was their bold stencil font labeling. It definitely caught my eye, and I could easily see it standing out on the shelf at a local bike shop. Another immediate assessment came when I opened the two jars. The contents packed a powerful aroma, each distinctive and suggestive of its contents. Taking the lid off Jingle reminded me of opening a pack of big red chewing gum, as cinnamon was the main component of the scent. Spring, on the other hand, had a more subdued therapeutic scent that combined the individual scents of many of its ingredients, including clove, lavender and lemongrass oils. The two formulas also differed in color. Jingle had a burnt orange hue, while Spring was more of a cream color. The lids of the containers were easy to unscrew, and the large threads made them easy to reattach after application providing some extra grip for my embro-coated fingers.
I tested each embrocation on numerous occasions, starting on small patches of skin and building up to cover larger areas. First, the Jingle embrocation. Initial application of the embro was done with nervous hands, as the scent offered fair warning of the product’s effect. A label on the side of the jar warned to use with caution, stating, “This stuff is strong!!!” With three exclamation points lingering in my mind, I decided to start with just the right leg, leaving the left leg as a sort of control.
The embrocation had the consistency of a balm, but it was easy to scoop out with a bit of pressure. It spread smoothly onto my skin, without absorbing completely, forming a bit of a physical barrier against the wind and rain. The burn did not set in immediately, but after 15 minutes I could start to feel a warming sensation. 45 minutes in, things had escalated quickly and I could definitely feel a burn come over my right leg. My ride lasted about an hour, as it was merely an extended commute home from work. Once inside my house, the warm temperature was not kind to my embro-treated leg, and I found myself reminiscing on the days of rolling down grassy hills, straight into a patch of stinging nettles! Those exclamation points in the warning were right. I sat for a while, enduring the intense burn on my right leg before finally giving in and washing the residue off with cold water and soap. It took several rounds of washing to remove the embrocation, but this is a positive trait when the riding conditions are damp and cold, and you’ll be outside for a while.
On the next rounds of testing I applied the cream to both legs and went for longer rides in the cold nighttime air. This second experience was more tolerable, as the embrocation did not burn as badly when the outside temperatures were lower. The wind kept things at a happy medium as the cold temperature and spicy embro balanced each other out. The Jingle embrocation definitely kept my legs warm, and was, more than anything, a great motivation to keep riding. Once removed, there were no negative side effects, such as dry or irritated skin. The oils in these embrocations do not use alcohol as a carrier, keeping the site of application from drying out after removal.
With the initial Jingle embro testing complete, I moved on to sample the muscle rub. I used the Spring muscle rub after several rides, and started to enjoy it as a post-ride ritual. I’m very fond of the smell, and I think that relaxes me as much as the cream itself. Consistency and application is similar to the embrocation, but left a thinner residue. To really put the product to the test, I wanted to get my muscles feeling truly sore. A broken body would require some ‘cross race action, and luckily for me, the Bay Area Super Prestige Sierra Point cyclocross race was just around the corner. After battling to a fifth place finish, I was sprinkled with aches and pains from the bumpy course. Upon returning home I applied the muscle rub to my arms, legs, back and neck. I immediately felt better from the scent alone, and while my pains eventually subsided, it is tough to determine how much of that relief was attributed to the muscle rub. But even the placebo effect has proven to be powerful, and regardless, I felt like the Spring had a very subtle warming sensation, and the massaging motion of application helped to loosen my muscles further. The application of the muscle rub was a pleasant experience overall.
Small Batch Embrocation is a homegrown company, offering all-natural embrocations that are made in the USA. Transparency of ingredients, a solid, easy-to-use container and pleasing scents work together to form a well-rounded product. It works as advertised, delivering an abundance of heat without leaving the skin parched. The muscle rub provided an enjoyable post-ride ritual that left me smelling fresh with my muscles relaxed.
The Small Batch products are reasonably priced. A 6-ounce jar will run $15 direct, or $15.99 at your local bike shop. That’s about 50% more for 25% less than another made-in-USA brand, so you can either pile on the heat or extend your riding season.
More info: squareup.com/market/small-batch-embrocation