Thursday, December 5, 2013

DIY Embrocation

Even if you're not into bike racing, you may have heard of embrocation. These are wonderful aromatic balms that racers -- especially those wacky cyclocross folk -- love to rub all over their legs so they can strike fear in the hearts of competitors at the starting line by looking crazy enough to ride half-naked in the snow.

Ever since embrocation caught on a few years ago, enterprising hipsters have been brewing up fiery batches in their basements and garages, sometimes going so far as to offer their product for sale online, in bike shops, and to cognoscenti around the world via the Webs.

So, yeah, racers are swearing by the stuff, but the beauty of embro is not restricted to the local cheetahs on featherweight bikes. Everyday fogeys like me love to rub some in before cold-weather rides, three seasons of the year. The old-world ritual alone is worth the effort, but there are other benefits, too.

Clearly the most alluring thing is the scent. Pop open one of these jars and you'll be wafted away to forests deep in the Belgian Ardennes, or the aromatic hold of an ancient spice island trade ship. The fragrances open the sinuses, stimulate the nervous system, and are said to have a salutary effect on the circulation and responsiveness in muscles, especially when applied with vigorous massaging.

Racers leave it on thick enough that it also repels cold air and moisture, but you don't need to. I put tights over mine (very déclassé) and it works great. Just beware if you're using the popular capsicum-based, heat-generating type: friction on the skin over the course of hours will definitely singe your synapses.

There's much press out there about what to buy and how to apply, so I'll skip that. My point today is, why pay twenty or (in Rapha's case) thirty dollars for a four-ounce tin, when you can roll your own for a fraction of the francs?

I recently completed a bunch of research on the web and then brewed up my first batch. I sent off a sealed parchment by carrier pigeon to the Division of Fabricated Nomenclature, forever reserving rights to the name Novembrocation™. (And don't even think about Septembrocation™ or Decembrocation™.)  I'm mighty pleased with the results, and have been applying the balm the same way I vote in every election: liberally.

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The basic recipe is simple: gently heat olive or other skin-healthy oil in a double boiler (or, in my case, an aluminum mixing bowl placed on top of a pot of simmering water). Add a portion of pure beeswax. In a few minutes, the wax melts like butter. Take the mixture off the stove, and let it cool just a touch. Add assorted essential oils.

(These are not hard ingredients to acquire. The beeswax and oils can be gotten at any health food store, including Whole Paycheck (er, Foods). They can also be ordered on-line.)

Pour the mixture into containers you've gathered--old tins for lip balm or mints, canning jars, etc. -- and let sit overnight, covered loosely. In the morning, sneak into the kitchen, open that puppy up, and take a scintillating sniff of heaven. You'll want to go pull on your wool jersey and jump on your bike straightaway.

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What's that? You want to know my recipe and ingredients? Sacre bleu! You must take me for some imbécile who just had zee fall from zee proverbial turnip truck. (No, that's not a clue. Don't try turnip essence. Really.)

All I'll say is, I steered away from the traditional menthol and mint (too cooling for this time of year) and yet did not go the ever-popular route of adding capsicum (and thereby creating lobster-red skin when the sun comes out or my tights rub too much). I used oils which smell wonderful, stimulate the circulation, and reduce inflammation, but you're going to have to do your own research, mon ami. That's half the fun. (I will divulge that I included a healthy dose of arnica oil, because it's a miraculous anti-inflammatory with which I've healed everything from bad bruises to torn achilles' tendons nearly overnight.)

Bottom line, when you open the jar, Novembrocation wafts you away to a chill forest deep in the Ardennes -- well, you know.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reviewed: Banjo Brothers Handlebar Bag

If you troll the web too much for bike stuff, as I do, you'll eventually stumble across a particular sect of cycling fanatics: hypernostalgic europhiles wishing they were some mid-century French gentilhomme,  pipe firmly set in teeth, casually wheeling over a Gallish col on a ten speed crafted lug by painstaking lug by his grandfather's best friend, and painted the hunter's green of a sparkling new 1952 Citroën. These good folk have convinced themselves that suitcase-sized, handstitched handlebar bags costing more than your latest laptop are the very best and only way to transport goods on a bicycle.

In my continuing personal exodus from the psuedo-racer ranks, I, too, have been experimenting with ways to carry stuff conveniently on the bike for over a year now. Last winter, I decided to try out the handlebar bag pudding to see if the proof was indeed (as the ancients avowed) in the tasting.

As often happens in the winter, I over-researched, over-indulged in the opinions of others, and, finally, overspent. I bought a beautiful Arkel handlebar bag I thought might last me forever, but turned out to be simply too much bag. (Hit me up if you're looking for a cheap, waterproof, bomb-proof, highly-engineered, 7-liter bar bag.)

This fall, I decided to try again. After more days of research than I care to admit, I settled on Banjo Brothers' Medium Handlebar Bag. Even though they have a quick-release version of the same bag with a snappy plastic handlebar mount, I wanted to try something that didn't project so much from the bars. My version attaches via simple-yet-sturdy Velcro straps, and is vertically secured by slim straps that plunge down to hooks which one mounts in the fork eyelets.

Being a bit esthetically neurotic, I wasn't crazy about the extra straps, and assumed I would end up jury-rigging a less visible way to keep the bag from rocking. However, after mounting the bag (which, by the way, is dead easy) I decided they are sleek enough, and now view them as the mark of a cyclist who is ready to ride anywhere. Any visual clutter they create is offset by the low profile of the bag itself, which (in the Velcro version) sits snugly against the bars and is small enough to more or less disappear into the overall handlebar picture (especially if you're sporting black bar tape).

The size of the bag was a deciding factor for me. There are very few 4.5 liter bar bags out there (most are much larger or smaller) and that was what I calculated would hold the stuff I need to reach all the time: jacket, phone, camera, snacks, sandwich, a small lock, and maybe a couple other items. It turned out I was right -- it's the Goldilocks size, neither too large nor too small.

The bag has just the right amount of structure. Whereas the Arkel bag was heavier -- custom-made for a grueling two-month tour with all kinds of abuse -- this one features enough stiffness to protect my camera and phone, but is still plenty lightweight.

Flip up the front flap, and you'll find a nifty hidden map case. Secure it with a metal snap near the bars, and you're navigating in style (the background fabric is a deep scarlet, a very stylish touch). The map case is smaller than the giant pocket the Arkel offers, of course, but should easily meet the needs of any day tripper.

It also feature a zip pocket underneath reflective trim on the front side:

Borrowing a leaf from much more expensive bags, the main compartment is lined in a bright crimson, which makes finding smaller or darker-colored items easier. There's a hefty, clear plastic pocket big enough for most phones or digital point-and-shoot cameras -- even for both, depending on size. The outside of the front flap also has a flat zip pocket, where you might hide money, extra maps, thin tools, and so forth.

One reason I chose this modestly-sized bag was my intention to pair it with a saddlebag of a similar size. My plan was to spread out the load, keep it light both front and back, and yet have plenty of room for any extra gear I might need for longer or colder rides. This way, I wouldn't have to deal with an over-sized, over-priced, painfully-authentic French bag perched pretentiously over my front wheel on an otherwise useless rack. I would have all that capacity, but twice the flexibility.

I found just what I was looking for in Banjo's small saddle bag in their Minnehaha canvas and leather line. (See second photo, and stay tuned for seat bag review soon.) Even when full (and that's about 9 liters, for those keeping score at home -- a lot of stuff) bike handling seems totally unaffected. Mission accomplished.

When a bag of this quality costs a paltry $29.00, it's hard to complain, but I feel obliged to mention a few points. Craftsmanship does not rule here: the Velcro handlebar straps are off-center on my model (see first photograph), and have thus worn away the electrician's tape on one inside edge of my bar wrap. If I leave the bag on, it's not visible, but the bar tape is effectively destroyed and needs to be replaced. I'll have to devise some remedy or other for the sandpaper effect of the straps.

Another point: this bag doesn't advertise itself as waterproof, and it's not. I rode home once through a torrential storm with monumental winds, and the outer fabric was drenched. However, everything in the inner plastic zippered pocket was dry, and everything else was barely damp, if at all. It was, however, a brief ride. If you want a hermetic seal, hit me up for that Arkel bag. It costs more, but even baby chicks would arrive warm and fluffy after a ride through Noah's Flood.

Finally, there will obviously be less room on the 'bars with the the Velcro version of this bag. My hands (admittedly large) fit just a little behind the outside corners of the bag for a somewhat centered bar position, but I will not be protecting my cold fingers from the wind behind the bag's modest bulk, as I could with the quick-release model. Nor will I be mounting a bar-clamp for a headlight. The good news is, this trade-off bothers me far less than I thought it would.

In all, I am very pleased indeed. With the two-bag set-up, I no longer have to pay style dues and jam all my snacks and layers into straining jersey pockets. (Really, who first thought that look was cool?) I've ridden hundreds of miles and felt totally prepared and light as I need to be.  It all sits quietly tucked away, readily accessible, with little-to-no performance penalty. And there's room for an apple from that farmer's market I pass, or a bottle or loaf of something I pick up for my loved ones waiting patiently at home.

The perfect set-up for an adventure-loving cyclist.