It’s Sunday so let’s revisit “Hell.” One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the riders are signing in for the race. The superstars are all shown graciously scribbling autographs for adoring fans who cluster around them. Then the camera focuses on a grinning rider for the JOBO (Golden?) France team (Anyone familiar with them?). He lifts up his orange wool jersey and peels back a grungy gray undershirt – probably made of wool, too – so that his trainer can rub something all over his chest. It must be some type of embrocation for the chilly spring morning. After it’s applied, the rider gives a satisfied nod. The camera finds another rider with Moser’s Sanson team sitting in a wicker chair as a trainer massages embrocation into his calf muscles.
Next, the riders are shown pedaling to the starting line. The narrator says, “It’s 20 minutes past 9. The 74th Paris-Roubaix is slowly getting underway. Ahead of them is 166 miles, and the riders are expected in Roubaix in a little more than 7 hours. But how many of them will arrive?”
It’s a good question. There’s plenty of carnage and pain ahead…
Following the success of my embrocation experiments on the road, I decided to try out the stuff on one of my roller workouts in the morning chill on my balcony. I squirted out a blob and rubbed it into my legs, and the wonderful warm feeling kicked in right away. I was riding bare legged when I usually have to wear tights. It felt great. But 10 minutes into the workout, I discovered a problem. When I’m riding on the roads, I don’t really smell the embrocation all that much because the wind whips it off my body. But when I’m riding in place on the rollers, the scent rises up from my legs and goes straight up into my nose. For the first few minutes of the workout, the sinus-clearing sensation was enjoyable. But after 10 minutes, I began feeling like I was riding in a cloud of embrocation. I got lightheaded and a bit dizzy. I couldn’t focus on my workout. All I was doing was thinking about how overwhelming the smell was. I felt like I had rolls of wintergreen Lifesavers jammed up each nostril.
Note to self: Get unscented embrocation for the rollers.
It turned out to be the roller workout from hell. Apart from the embrocation overdose, there were a few other annoying things. As usual, I was on a tight schedule. I had just enough time to do a one-hour workout before showering, shoveling some oatmeal down my gullet, checking e-mails, cycling to school with my little daughter and then hopping the shuttle bus to work.
When I got on the rollers and started pedaling, I noticed my Trek bike computer wasn’t working. I got off the bike and jiggled the sensor on the fork, but that didn’t work. I didn’t have time to mess with it, and there was no way I was going to spend an hour on the rollers without feedback. So I had to do a bike change and go back into the apartment to get my trusty steel Colossi.
I got on the bike again and tried to zone out while pedaling and listening to my iPod. Then I started to wonder, “Hmmm, since when has ‘Kissing the Lipless’ become an eight-minute song?” For some reason, my iPod was continuously repeating songs. The Shins were stuck in some kind of weird loop. I had to stop again and try to debug the iPod. I tried an Arcade Fire song and it started repeating, too. Resetting the device didn’t work, and I couldn’t waste time fussing with it. I went to a Podcast of a “Shout Out Louds” concert, downloaded from All Songs Considered, and that took care of the problem.
Once I passed the 10-minute warm-up mark, I tried to pick up the tempo and do intervals of three minutes hard followed by two minutes of recovery. But for some reason, my legs had no power. I was struggling to spin at a pathetic 30 kph, when I can usually easily ramp it up to 36-40 kph. I tried to shift up to my big ring, but my 8-year-old geriatric Dura Ace front derailleur just couldn’t complete the task. It usually works fine on the road but falls short on the rollers. I’d greatly appreciate an explanation from all the mechanical engineers out there.
That’s when I decided that some workouts just aren’t meant to be and this was one of them. All the delays had eaten into my hectic morning timetable. To complete all the other essential tasks, I had to cut the ride short to 30 minutes.
As always, with lessons learned, I’ll try again tomorrow.
I just want to know why everyone has been keeping the marvels of embrocation a secret from me. Oh man, what a revelation. Slathering the stuff on my legs has solved a serious problem I’ve been having keeping them warm and limber on rides.
When I was an unspectacular-but-determined cross country runner in high school, I ran in shorts through most of the winter without any problem. All it took was a five-minute warm-up to get the blood flowing in the legs and they would be fine.
But now (I won’t say how many years – or decades – later), I just can’t get rid of the chill. I’ve had to abandon a climbing workout because the legs weren’t warming up, and I was afraid I was going to pull something. I did a 130-kilometer ride over the weekend, and my quads felt like semi-unthawed hamburger meat throughout the workout. At the 100-kilometer mark, I felt an aching pain deep in my quads. It got so bad that I thought I might have to get off the bike and hail a taxi. When I got home, it was painful to walk. I’ve never felt that sensation before. I’m thinking now that my muscles were aching because they weren’t getting enough blood. The sensation went away as soon as my legs warmed up.
The other day I went out for a 30-kilometer morning ride before work. The temp was about 8 degrees Celsius, and I felt like I was riding in a wind tunnel set on “maximum Arctic blast.” Ordinarily, it would feel like ice crystals were forming on my quads and hams – even if I were wearing thick tights or leg warmers. But before I went out, I rubbed some embrocation (cheap “Cool Heat” from Rite Aid) into my quads and calf muscles. This made a huge difference. My legs felt great. Warm and limber. They stayed that way for the entire ride. I think I’ve solved my problem and the solution was simple. I love it when that happens.
I don’t know why it took me so long to connect the dots with this embrocation thing. I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t sure what the word meant until recently (It’s derived from the Greek “embrokhe” or “lotion”). Sure, I’m an English major who has also completed coursework – but never finished the final paper, as my mother frequently points out – for a master’s in another language-related subject. But I just haven’t come across the word “embrocation” until lately. I’ve always called the stuff “liniment” or referred to it using a product name like “Ben Gay” or “Icy Hot” or “Heat.”
I’ve kind of known about the concept of embrocation for awhile. It’s been on the edge of my radar screen. I was well aware that Rule 20 of OREC (The Official Rules of the Euro Cyclist) says: “The Euro Cyclist shall ALWAYS have liniment applied to his legs before appearing in public.”
There’s even a mighty fine cycling Web site and magazine that uses the term in its title:
Then there’s the brief scene with the embrocation junkie in my all-time favorite cycling movie “A Sunday in Hell.” The guy is getting ready to head to the starting line of the 1976 Paris-Roubaix and his trainer lifts up his woolen jersey and peels back a grungy gray undershirt and starts rubbing embrocation all over the guy’s chest. I doubt I’ll go that far.