em•bro•ca•tion noun \ˌem-brə-ˈkā-shən\
: a liquid or semiliquid preparation that is applied to the skin as an anodyne or a counterirritant
Competitive cyclists are a weird bunch. Being a card-carrying member of the tribe for the better part of 18 years affords me the right of self-deprecation, but after a even a bit of self examination; I think it could be agreed upon than we do engage in some bizarre rituals. Not the least of which is the pseudo-masochistic drive for suffering. We seek out new and exciting ways to bring pain upon ourselves so that we might be forged into that which we weren’t before. A weapon sharpened through the cauldron of training. Come race day, the only thing that separates ourselves from the rest is the completeness of the preparation that occurred before. This means riding countless hours, without regard for our mood, the terrain, or the elements. Cycling is suffering.
The Belgians know a thing or two about suffering. The small country is home to some of the most fervent and dedicated competitive cyclists and fans that can be found anywhere. The brutally cold fall and winter months are home to what could be considered their national pastime: cyclocross. In order to endure the cold, rain, wind and snow; the competitors sought out a tool to fight the elements without resorting to piling on bulky clothing that can become weighed down with mud. Besides, the Belgian hardmen (and hardwomen) can’t be bothered with the notion that they might be perceived as weak. Enter: embrocation.
Embrocation as a tool for cyclists is used as an aid in massaging the legs to stimulate blood flow and typically includes some sort of “warming” agent like capsaicin -the stuff that makes peppers hot- to give the rider the illusion of heat. The oily base of embro’ is meant to create a barrier on the skin to wind and moisture. Early forms of embrocation liniment often included things like camphor, turpentine, ammonia water and eggs; but the more modern variety will typically include any number of multi-syllabic chemical compounds. In an effort to bring the magical properties of embro’ back to its roots, Merrimac, MA resident Pete Smith started mixing up the stuff in his own kitchen. Enter: Mad Alchemy .
Mad Alchemy produces embrocation balm in a variety of different blends ranging from mellow to “madness,” dependent upon the temperature the product is to be used in and the user’s penchant for suffering. What they all have in common is the use of all natural ingredients made in small batches to ensure the highest of quality.
I’ve sampled a number of Pete’s wares, and have become a bit of a Mad Alchemy addict. I simply can’t jump in the saddle without the stuff anymore. However, with my recent relocation to the sun-drenched Southern Californian coast, the need for a warming embro’ is limited to around 3 months or so. Luckily, Mad Alchemy also produces a non-warming “Summer” blend for those of us who’ve forgotten what winter is actually supposed to be.
Now, you might be wondering why there would even be a need for a non-warming embro’. I mean, what’s the point of embrocating if there’s no heat involved? First of all, you’ve got to understand that embrocation is much more than just a jar of goop that you slather on your gams before heading on the road or trail. The application on the material is a bit ritualistic (hang with me here, folks).
Mad Alchemy’s Summer Blend’s base is Soybean, Grapeseed, and Beeswax. The way it applies is much akin to a massage oil and aids in a bit of self-massage before you get underway. The smells of spearmint and eucalyptus essential oils have a bit of a Pavlovian effect in that they remind you that you’re about to go to work. Aside from the perceived mental benfits, it also helps that they have a natural bug repelling quality; perfect for long summer afternoons in the woods. Because the salve stays on the surface of the skin, it’s effective at repelling water and I’ve found it to be a useful barrier to Poison Ivy, Oak and other urushiol coated plants. Plus, like all the flavors of Mad Alchemy embro’, there’s the super PRO shine. I defy you not to feel like Cipo assaulting the flats of San Remo after polishing up with some Mad Alchemy .