Cyclocross Traditions, Part 2: Embrocation

Imagine that it is 1920.  You are a bike racer, which means you either ride on the track or the road, as mountain biking doesn’t exist yet.  You hear about this crazy Belgian thing called “cycle-cross” and investigate it.  You find knobby tires on road bikes, mud everywhere and traditional Belgian winter weather.  That’s cold-ish and rainy. You start thinking, “This sport seems stupid, but somehow incredibly fun. However, I am freezing. How can I keep my legs warm?”

But you are a bike racer! You know that wool will get wet and heavy. How do you even keep some kind of leg warmer up without buttons that will certainly make it too tight or too loose? But you have this tub of goo (not Gu, certainly) that you use for those early-season races.  It’s greasy, makes your legs kind of warm and at least makes the road spray bead up on your legs instead of soaking in.  So you grab your canister of embrocation, smear away and go race.

Now imagine you are a bike racer in 2011.  Maybe you ride the road, maybe you ride the trails. In either case, you hear about this crazy thing called “cyclocross” and investigate it.  Roadies find tires that seem rather large and knobby, goofy old cantilever brakes and for some reason, people riding drop bars off the pavement.  Mountain riders find tires that seem awfully skinny and not very knobby and people riding bikes without any suspension on the dirt.  It’s fall, so it’s probably still cold-ish and rainy.  Both riders think, “This sport seems stupid, but somehow incredibly fun.  However, I am freezing.  How can I keep my legs warm?”

They go to Competitive Cyclist and find thermal bibs, thermal tights, knee warmers and leg warmers.  They also find those tubs of goo.  Which do they pick?  Roadies, ever bowing to the tradition of their ancient sport, decide the tubs of goo are “classic” or “tradition” or “venerable”.  Mountain riders, coming from a sport of innovation, decide goo is stupid and buy some knee warmers that won’t cause their legs to feel like they’re on fire when they shower after the race.

So that’s a little over the top. But I have to say, as soon as you really start looking at embrocation, you have to realize what a ridiculously outdated idea it is. We have apparel with nanofibers (whatever a nanofiber is).  Why do I need some silly goop on my legs?  “Tradition”?  I’m not one to go with the new thing just because it is new, nor am I one to abandon tradition simply because it is tradition.  But just like tubulars, I think embrocation will die out except for a few diehard users. Why should I purchase a consumable product when I can just buy a reusable piece of apparel? I may still give it a try this ‘cross season — just because I can. I don’t expect to like it much.


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