Saturday, November 9, 2013

Hey There, Hot Stuff

Donkey Label Mild Embrocation
Up until a few days ago, I had never tried embrocation. And why would I? My understanding was, the stuff was for racers. On cold days they spread it on their bare legs to warm up. Beyond this practical application, embrocation also seems to serve a romantic function in racing culture's narrative. It is one of those sacred rituals, always written about with reverence and awe. All this made it feel part of a world I had little to do with.

I was somewhat surprised then, when several friends suggested I give embrocation a try. I enjoy cycling in cold weather, but sometimes experience stiffness and aches when starting a ride in the cold. The embrocation, I was told, could work as a remedy. Now I was curious. But which to choose? That question answered itself when the rep for Donkey Label offered a sample to try. A few days later, a pot of their mild embrocation arrived.

Donkey Label is a tiny company in Minneapolis, specialising in custom jerseys and skincare products for cyclists. As the name suggests, they have a donkey on their label (which, while adorable, can also be problematic: I have one of their soaps and can't bring myself to actually use it, for fear of "murdering" the creature carved into the surface). But I digress. Made in small batches without the use of preservatives, Donkey Label embrocations are organic and hand mixed. When I opened the stainless canister, the contents were a translucent ambery-orange balm. It smelled spicy, but not harsh - a masala chai sort of spicy, with something extra I could not identify.

Scooping out a small amount, I applied it to whatever areas felt like they could use warming up: mostly along my lower back and hips, and a bit to the shoulders and knees. Rubbing the stuff in, I expected to feel a burning sensation. But instead it was a slow acting warm-to-hot feeling that, together with the scent, put me into an almost trans-like state. It simultaneously soothed me and jolted me awake.

I set off on my bike on a damp 48°F morning, feeling as if my body was aglow, as well as more fluid and relaxed. Interestingly, over the next several hours the sensation seemed to grow stronger rather than diminish, reaching a tingly apex just before it finally faded around mid-day. And as soon as it wore off I wanted to feel it again. Could it be this stuff is addictive? That could explain a lot.

Donkey Label informs me that I should feel the tingle again in the post-ride shower. Alas every time I've used this embrocation so far I've stayed out all day, so that by the time I shower it is but a faint echo of the original sensation. I guess this gives me incentive to wash sooner.

Though shrouded in mystery, cycling embrocation is essentially a waterproofing heat rub. It contains essential oils blended with warming agents (such as capsicum) and ingredients with anti-inflamatory properties (such as camphor). These combine to perform vasodilatory and analgesic functions, while ingredients such as beeswax form a barrier against wind and moisture. Some of these effects (minus the waterproofing) can be achieved with commercial topical creams such as Bengay and IcyHot, though the exact nature and duration of their effectiveness will differ. To me both of those products feel harsh in comparison to the DL embrocation, hitting too hard at the beginning and wearing off sooner. I also find that they smell quite unpleasant, whereas the scent of the embrocation is gorgeous.

I have not tried any embrocation products besides Donkey Label's mild formula and cannot speak of how it compares to others. But in its own right, this stuff is so nice it makes me look forward to winter cycling even more than I do already. DL's mild embrocation is warming, soothing, de-aching, and, dare I say - sensuous.

24 comments:

  1. I used this sort of thing in college when I ran track and cross country, the product we used was called "Atomic Balm" if I'm not mistaken. I've avoided anything like it since. It was helpful but far from pleasant. There seemed to be a fine line between just enough to feel nice and loose and an enflamed state where you wanted to tear off your clothes and drag your behind in the grass like some stray dog. It also seemed like the manufacturers thought the consumer was going to judge it based on how quickly a person wearing some could clear a cafeteria. Coach used to encourage us to "Use more!" while we tried to dab on just enough to get the necessary odor and scraped the rest off onto the wall or something while he wasn't looking.

    I knew the fast bike Racers used it too but I never considered myself serious enough to go to those lengths back then. We just assumed a "Massage" and a good slapping of the thighs and calves accomplished the same thing(maybe we were just dumb AND slow). But if there are options that you can use terms like this to describe than perhaps it's time to try a bit( a trance like state accompanied by a sensuous spicy scent? Yes Please!).

    Is this one of those deals where the first one's free then $300 an ounce from a guy in a blacked-out Escalade thereafter?

    Spindizzy

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  2. You've never used Vick's Vapo Rub, Ben Gay, or the various chamois products? All are embrocations.

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    1. I've used Ben Gay (it's in the post) and Vick's; they are similar-ish, but different. And I am using the term embrocation in its cycling-specific form, which is differentiated from chamois cream (few cyclists would be pleased should they confuse the two!)

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  3. "it makes me look forward to winter cycling even more than I do already"

    crazy woman!!!

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  4. Interesting review, thanks V. Can't find a 'mild' on their webpage though, just hot, medium, non-warming and cooling Embrocation. Maybe they changed the names recently?

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    1. Hi Jan - There is a pull-down menu where you select the heat level.

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    2. That's right, hadn't noticed it - thanks !

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  5. Can anyone describe the effects of the hot/mild/non-warming/cooling?

    Is the "Mild" hotter than the "Medium"?

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  6. Italian homebrew leans heavy on olive oil. You probably wouldn't like olive oil straight (although Achilles did and so did Helen of Troy), you might be surprised how well it goes with a little rubbing alcohol or mixed with basic camphor/menthol drugstore rubs. Use good oil not supermarket oil. Andy Hampsten grows olives and sells good oil. Out in California the Sciabica family does good oil (both have websites).

    For heat, powdered cayenne. Sparingly and well mixed. I am not responsible if you overdo it.

    That Donkey product has an impressive list of ingredients. I've never seen one so complex or so good. None of those ingredients are expensive or scarce. Homebrew time.

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  7. Is that what it is? It was a mystery to me, other than I had read various articles and blog postings about embrocation emergencies where one was having a bad reaction and had to get it off fast. Run in the shower, use extra strength dish soap and the like. I can imagine something like that happening to me. In the summer I had put some new sunblock on before going on a ride, it had been a gift so it wasn't my choice product, but basically had to run into the shower and wash it off, had asthmatic attack, no ride for me.
    Today I went out in the bleak rainy cold with silk long underwear, and wool pants, it kept me toasty.

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  8. Does embro work on fingers and toes? Those are the parts of me that could really used some extra heat.

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    1. Yes. To find something that works that you can tolerate on fingers and toes will mean experimenting. The one you like on your fingers will probably not be the one you like on your toes. Heat is the easiest ingredient to add (cayenne) and the trickiest. What I use on my toes would make me peel my gloves and beg for mercy if I put it on my hands. And be aware that any capsaicin containing ingredient works in slowly. It is much stronger an hour into the ride.

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  9. "I have one of their soaps and can't bring myself to actually use it, for fear of "murdering" the creature carved into the surface" - Glad I'm not the only one with that dilemma! Good thing the donkey is on the label for this product. No donkeys will be harmed. :)

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  10. Embrocations do not actually produce heat, ie it is not an exothermic reaction like with chemical warmers, rather they essentially irritate the skin with stuff like pepper abstract (Mad Alchemy) and is water (sweat) activated which makes the body send more blood to the area thus making it feel warm. The most important lesson with using it is:

    Chamois creme FIRST, Embrocation SECOND.

    Reversing this order is potentially disastrous! ;-)

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  11. In the winter months I feel achy on my morning commutes so it sounds like this product could be for me. Can embrocation be worn under clothing, or is it sticky? Does it stain?

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    1. It is not so much sticky as waxy. I have not noticed staining - though my clothing is pretty dark.

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  12. I, too, have tried Atom Balm on my legs back in high school track in the 1970's. Hitting the showers afterward would set my legs afire. Haven't thought of this in almost 40 years. And now I'm thinking, maybe just a little to get me going on the cold winter-morning commutes. It may be more pleasant without the coaches whistle in my ear, or the towel snaps in the locker room. (Glad you're back, missed you.)

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  13. In my experience, embrocation works best on exposed skin only - not under clothing. Because of this, it's useful temperature range is fairly narrow -- cool weather but not so cold that you need to cover all exposed skin. Also not so cold that hypothermia is a serious concern, since the vasodilation effect causes your body to lose heat at a greater rate.

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  14. Different stuff means different things to different people. For me (I’ve just realized!), embrocation is nostalgia – it reminds me of my childhood and my father; he always used it and encouraged me to use it. I think he called it Wintergreen. I remember the smell first, then the tingle. I’ve never considered using it or even thought about it since (he died years ago), but reading this post triggered all sorts of memories, most of them happy, and lately I’ve been miserable. You’ve got the power, girl! :)

    Just found it on Amazon UK – Magic Wintergreen rub – maybe that’s what you need these days, right enough.

    “There’s no justice in the world, but there is magic” – you and Pamela should make that your mantra.

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  15. I used to use Tiger Balm, before cycling-specific products were available.

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  16. I've been looking for something to help with my rheumatoid arthritis. I don't like the smell products like Bengay or Icyhot. They smell and don't last very long. My husband read this article and suggested I try it. I received the product. IT smells great. It doesn't linger like other products. I used a bit much at first, It was hot. But the more I use the the better I get at how much I need to use. It warms the areas of my joints that are troubling me. Hips, back, knees, shoulders, even my hands and feet. It has been a great alternative to using pain medications every day.
    It has been a great help. Thank you so much.

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  17. I like to use Badger Balm a lot. There's no "cooling" ingredients like wintergreen or camphor, just capsaicin, ginger, and other spicy ingredients.

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