Sunday, 17 June 2012

Of Choppers, Long Haul Truckers and why cycling's future looks like its past


When I was growing up in 1970s Glasgow, the more worldly-wise boy three houses down had a far more obviously cool bike than mine. It had a big, chunky back wheel, a cushioned saddle that curved up to provide back support, high handlebars and a tiny front wheel. Anyone of a certain age from the UK will have instantly recognised from the description that my neighbour had a Raleigh Chopper.
A Raleigh Chopper: it was certainly popular -
but are its riders still on bicycles now?

There has been an outpouring of nostalgia in recent weeks in the UK over the Chopper after Alan Oakley, the man who designed the Chopper for Raleigh in the 1960s, died. Adults now in their 40s or 50s waxed lyrical over how they’d nagged their parents for a Chopper, envied other children who had them or ridden around their street on them.

The conspicuously absent stories, however, were of people riding any great distance on the bike type that, for a while, pretty much every young boy in Britain seemed to want. There were far more stories of people crashing because of the bike’s inherent instability or doing permanent damage to their crotches as they slid off the saddle onto the top tube-mounted gear lever. It could almost have been deliberately positioned, after all, to produce such injuries.

The Chopper looked, to many people at the time, like the wave of the future – but my suspicion is that it planted in many of my generation’s heads the idea that a bike was a toy motor vehicle substitute, rather than a means of transport. It was predicated on the principle that, to succeed, a bike had to look like a motor vehicle – specifically the motorbike that Peter Fonda rode in the film Easy Rider.

The Invisible Visible Man's Surly Long Haul Trucker.
This picture is making its third appearance on this blog -
but it would be churlish to cheat readers
of another chance to ogle it.
The contrast between a Chopper and the bike I mount every morning could hardly be starker. Despite being designed by the fairly “street” Surly brand, my bike, with its drop handle bars, leather Brooks saddle and conventional profile, looks as resolutely traditional as the Chopper tried  to look radical and modern. But, as a machine to ride, it boasts technology that strikes me as a miracle when I think about it – and works so smoothly I barely ever do. I can flick between gears with barely a thought, stop smartly and haul heavy loads.

Most novices nevertheless look at my bike, ask if they’ve heard correctly what I paid for it, and struggle to work out where the money went. Like the children who preferred the gimmicky Chopper to a bike that would actually take one places, they prefer something cheaper but with the flashy features that suggest the bike concerned is superior. It takes an experienced cyclist to know the value of paying out for a bike that, while as uncomplicated as possible, boasts the best possible components and materials.

But no owner of the superficially attractive but rubbishy bikes of which the Chopper was a forerunner is likely ever to become an experienced cyclist. Thousands of scrapyards’ worth of such bikes lie abandoned in cellars, garden sheds or backyards worldwide. People who thought they’d try cycling bought them because they seemed good value for money – then found the tyres were prone to punctures, the frame was heavy and the poor-quality suspension soaked up much of the effort that should have gone into moving them forward.
Nasty bikes (on the right) on Glasgow's Nithsdale Road.
WARNING: some readers may find the cheap disc brakes
and nasty suspensions in this picture distressing.

I encountered a rare excursion for a flock of such bikes on a recent visit to my family in Glasgow. I noticed some nasty-looking cheap mountain bikes clustered round a bike stand on Nithsdale Road in Pollokshields then spotted their owners – two parents and a daughter of around 10 – eating in the same restaurant we were patronising. Their meal finished, the family strapped on helmets, unlocked the bikes – and headed home up the narrow, obstructed pavement (sidewalk). Their unsatisfactory bikes were clearly barely ever used. They had yet to realise how much greater a danger cycling on the pavement – where each side street would raise the risk of a misunderstanding with a car – posed to them than cycling confidently and visibly on the area’s quiet, safe roads.

The question is what it is about bicycles’ aesthetics that leads to such perverse outcomes.

It would be nice to say it didn’t matter how a bike looked – but then I remember the reading party I attended during my third year at university. There was a discussion one afternoon of aesthetics, where a lecturer raised the question of whether it counted as art to hang a bicycle wheel on a wall. I, already a little besotted with bicycles, launched into a speech on the beauty of the relationship between the different spokes, the wheel’s combination of strength and practicality and so on. The lecturer grudgingly remarked that I might one day make a useful general cultural commentator.

It’s undoubtedly an attraction that many bicycles’ looks – the combination of strength and lightness, clear lines and the delicate meshing of a wheel’s spokes – are an uplifting example of economy and effectiveness in industrial design.

But at  the same time there’s an attraction in seeing a bike that’s been fitted out neatly to do a job. My bike has front and rear luggage racks, mudguards and a couple of different hitches for hauling children. There’s an argument that the paraphenalia represent unattractive clutter around the bike’s neat lines. But I enjoy the feeling they’re there to do a job – that they make the bicycle useful, rather than the kind of machine whose rider has to hang shopping off his handlebars. Extras start looking like clutter to my eye when they stop being useful. I experience an almost visceral aversion when I see a cheap mountain bike with nasty, low-cost springs masquerading as a suspension. Look closely enough and most such bikes feature somewhere a sticker warning the rider that it can’t safely handle jumps or rough terrain. It doesn’t, in other words, function as its form advertises it should.

A Charge Plug single-speed in the City of London.
Sure, it's uncluttered. But how will its riders' knees feel in 20 years' time?
I find the current vogue for stripped-down, single-speed or fixed-wheel bikes depressing for similar reasons. The lines may be crisp and clean – but I can’t help feeling they reflect the modern era’s pessimism about progress. People seem to have grown tired of imperfect examples of multi-geared bikes or bikes with suspension and given up on the possibility of ever doing better. Fixed-wheel bikes’ recent popularity among commuters may not represent quite the same kind of retreat from progress as radical Islamism or the US’s Tea Party movement – but I’d argue it shares a general intellectual background.

Yet even my own main bike disguises its modernity with a retro-ish cover. That’s the dominant current aesthetic for pretty much any kind of decent bike not intended for top-level road or mountain bike racing. The ironic result is that the more committed someone is to the idea that cycling has a strong future the more likely his or her bike is to look like it comes from the past. It is extraordinarily rare to see a practical, well-made utilitarian bike whose designers had the confidence to make it look modern.

A Scott sub35 hybrid. It may not be perfect -
but it features mudguards, hub gears, sensible brakes
and looks, miracle of miracles, modern.
Nevertheless, manufacturers like Surly making retro-ish but effective bikes are unlikely to suffer as Raleigh has since it put its faith in gimmicky bikes. Even though I never owned a Chopper, my first three bikes – including a bike I was riding regularly as recently as ten years ago – were all Raleighs. Like many British people, I was barely aware other brands were available. Yet Alan Oakley’s death came less than a month after Raleigh, which once manufactured more bikes annually than any other company, sold itself to Accell, a Dutch cycle manufacturer, for just $100m.

I’ve remarked before on this blog on how magnificently the free market serves cyclists, even if many are reluctant to recognise it. It may mark a sad end for a proud British company. But, in ending the independence of Raleigh Cycle, which sold hundreds of thousands of British youngsters a gimmick for a bicycle, the market may have done cyclists yet another favour.

28 comments:

  1. About a year ago I was in a shoe-repair shop, which is an increasingly rare business, and I was talking to the proprietor about the machines and equipment.

    He explained that the machines in his shop were 90 years old, and then showed me the current catalog for the same products - and except for the addition of some safety shield panels, they were unchanged. He explained, It took them fifty years to evolve the design, and they really haven't found a way or had the need to change it for the hundred years since then.

    I wonder if it's not a bit of the same, if the "retro" Surly isn't a reversion to the evolved form that was lurking within those bike-shaped-objects all the while?

    BTW, beautiful photo of the IVM standing next to the Surly.

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  2. Vannevar,

    Thank you, as ever, for your kind comment and your kind words about the picture, which was photoshopped by the Invisible Visible Girl, 10.

    There's some truth in what you say. The design was arguably perfected (more or less) some time ago. But I'm also constantly struck by how much cycle technology has advanced in the last few years. I really do think my bike is full of big advances on what used to be available.

    One point I didn't mention in the post, which is quite long enough as it is, is the technical conservatism that sporting bodies have enforced. John Moulton's designs briefly revolutionised some speed/distance records in the 1960s, for example. But the authorities put a stop to it by writing new rules that said a bike had to be a traditional diamond shape.

    Invisible.

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  3. A very good friend is just back from a longish tour he undertook with his sister.

    She had just finished building up her new Surly and very nice it is too.

    My friend had recently finished building up his old eBay wreck. An old Claud Butler that had been in a sorry state. Minimum spend due to a very tight budget still managed to get a nice looking and very functional bike based around an old 531 frame. Probably about £130 all in and all the retro boxed unintentionally ticked.

    Hi sister is small and her brother is tall so there was a big difference in sizes of the bikes however they were both surprised at the weight difference and how, other than that, how similarly well they performed. His was the lightest.

    This isn't a dig at Surly, far from it, it is just pointing out why serious everyday road bikes haven't moved on. Because they are nearly perfected. A few second hand parts and he had his index changing gears and it was close to modern again...

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    1. Thank you very much for your comment, CrankyAcid. One thing that can definitely not be said for Surlys (or at least my Long Haul Trucker - the Invisible Visible Woman's Cross Check is a slightly different story) is that they're light. My Long Haul Trucker is robust, I would say. It's pretty bulky. But it's absorbed pretty much everything it's had thrown at it so far in terms of loads - and was unharmed when I got knocked off three years ago.

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    2. There's actually no reason at all that a bike need to be heavy. I've just finished building my forul weather bike, based on a 3-tube 531 frame and Tange fork. A fairly light thing from ca. 1980, but certainly not high-end for that era. With touring rims & tyres, single speed Torpedo hub, mudguards, lock, rack and stand it weighs a little less than 12 kg. Handlebar is moustache'ish. A similar Batavus or other modern clunker would weigh at least 16-17 kg. I wouldn't call that progress. So, I'm not impressed with "how magnificently the free market serves cyclists". Mass markets bikes could be produced infinitely much nicer and lighter.

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  4. A Brompton is a genuine innovation - you can easily take it on the train, and into the office/chip shop/home, so it doesn't get nicked. I also ride a NS Moulton - and very nice it is too. In fact it is unbelievably lovely to ride: fast (20lbs, 130psi tyres), comfortable (front and rear suspension), and very stable around corners. But too expensive to ever leave outdoors!

    The best kids bikes are from Isla Bikes, and given how much they sell for second hand on ebay they are not even expensive in the long run.

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    1. Tim,

      Thank you very much for your comment. How nice to have on board an academic who genuinely knows what he's talking about. We'll all have to be on our best behaviour.

      You're right - I think Bromptons are a genuine innovation and they've persuaded to cycle many people who otherwise wouldn't. I've steered clear on the grounds that, at my size, I'd closely resemble a performing circus bear on such a bike. But they've done cycling a favour - that's for sure.

      I nearly mentioned Moultons in the post (but it was too long anyway). They were a genuine change in cycle technology and geometry. Partly for that reason, the sporting authorities banned them and most bikes reverted to the standard diamond shape. It's perhaps a pity - but also perhaps it's just as well that ahead of the Tour de France each year we're discussing the riders, not what they'll be riding.

      Finally, I fully endorse you on Islabikes. The Invisible Visible Girl will be riding her Islabike when the Invisible Visible family head off cycling in France this summer and the Invisible Visible Boy is learning on one. They fulfill precisely the functions I think a bicycle should, without unhelpful extras.

      Invisible.

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    2. Glad you mentioned Moultons eventually!

      I am one of those 50 year olds who bought a Chopper in 1970, was the envy of all my mates too, but it really was a rubbish bicycle. I remember that when I was in the shop with my father getting it, the shop owner pointing at a white Moulton Mk3 and telling us that it was a 'better bicycle'. I can't remember what happened to the Chopper at all, I moved onto 'racing' bikes and eventually motorcycles but, as a design student in the 80's eventually bought an old Moulton and discovered it really was a better bicycle.

      I've not been without one since, albeit not always used and I even bought myself a white Mk3 about 10 years ago.

      Actually it was not as good as I expected, the older F-frames seem better for me and I have also had a an APB and now have a current TSR8 - the spaceframe bikes are really something else. The top end Moultons are real collectors items, all polished stainless frames and costing a phenomenal amount of money (but rich people should have dreams and desires too, no?) but the Pashley built TSR's are really sophisticated, elegant and still, arguably, a 'better' bicycle. British designed and made too!

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    3. Thank you, Ian Kew, for your comment - and I feel privileged to have so many Moulton fans commenting on here. That's a pretty toney end of the cycling fraternity, isn't it?

      Another point that occurred to me as I was writing the post was how many companies that used to belong to Raleigh are now flourishing, while Raleigh itself has lost its independence. Moulton, Sturmey Archer and Brooks saddles all used to belong to Raleigh - and all, in a sense, have outlived it.

      Invisible.

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    4. Indeed, Dr Moulton was compelled to sell the business to Raleigh after incurring some pretty large debts in the late '60's as they effectively bullied his business to extinction (after ignoring the option on the design when it was originally offered to them!) But 40 years later even the tiny Bradford-on-Avon factory makes more bikes in the UK than Raleigh - as they make none at all!

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  5. I suppose the main real technological advances have been in factors that are not very visible, even to the trained eye - better materials, puncture resist tyres, probably better lubricants, sealed bearings, etc. So for manufacturers to make their brand and designs stand out, they have added the highly visible if somewhat bizarrely designed suspensions, frames, saddles that make me gulp. And the sight of people peddling furiously on mountain bikes on their daily commute .. the heart sinks, it really does.

    On the other hand it makes deciding on a bike purchase very difficult because the deciding factors ought to involve assessing qualities that are not apparent and demand some expertise. Therefore a lot of choices are based on just those aspects that manufacturers have used as visible markers and with overtones of being 'modern' and 'trendy' even if they are in reality damaging to the utility of the bike. As you say the Chopper was an excellent example, trying to catch the popularity of Peter Fonda's Harley.

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    1. Rob,

      Thanks. You are exactly right in all you say.

      That's not something I say lightly.

      Invisible.

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  6. I think a whole segment of the market has been missed here. The fast road bike. Over the past few years this area has seen major advances in material (different types of carbon) geometry (sloping tubes for example - though not very new) group sets (Di2 for example) and a multitude of wheel designs. Down to enginering of things such as BB30 - I know nothing about mountain bikes but I am sure it is much the same story.

    Whilst not functional in terms of getting the shopping they are functional in terms of increased speed / comfort and distance.

    Obviously this is predominately driven by marketing and sales - but to some it makes a significant step change in what a racer uses the bike for. Much like cars - these technologies drip down to the cheaper end of the market eventually.

    I fixed the brakes on a friends 20 year old bike yesterday and I can say quite comfortably the rear wheel of his bike weighed as much as my whole best bike - it was twice the weight of my reasonably new commuter bike! I would be able to do half the speed / distance on his bike as my commuter bike (alloy frame / carbon forks and fairly high spec wheels and groupset) mind you at least I would be able to stop on it now.

    Surely the prime reason for a bike is to get from A to B quickly, efficiently and comfortably, for this reason I would say bikes (especially mid market ones) have come on in leaps and bounds over the past 20 years - if people tried out some of the new bikes they would be more likely to come back to cycling when they realise how much better they are nowadays.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Idle Boy. It was because I was aware that I was leaving out top-level road bikes and mountain bikes that I wrote the retro look was "the dominant current aesthetic for pretty much any kind of decent bike not intended for top-level road or mountain bike racing".

      Both those bike types have obviously improved out of all recognition (I understand mountain bike suspensions have come along by leaps and bounds in the last few years). I left them out mainly because this blog is about using bikes to get about, rather than cycling sport.

      But it is, I think, interesting that manufacturers feel they need to make those bikes look modern and others old-fashioned. They're both far more modern than a few years ago - why is one made to look it, while the other is often made to look the opposite?

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  7. This post is really astonishingly smug, sorry.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the smugness. I'll try to steer my next post more heavily towards conceitedness or self-satisfaction, in the hope you prefer that.

      Invisible.

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  8. Hi Invisible,

    Another insightful post that made me think beyond the usual dichotomy second-hand (old) bike/new bike, to retro-looking new bike, new-with-outdated-components bike, gimmicky modern bike etc. It's interesting that you should mention the Scott hybrid: I've also noticed how it good it looks. I wonder what you think of the Decathlon models? They certainly look modern, but not in a good way in my opinion. I've no idea if they are good quality bikes though.

    I'll have to disagree with you on the single-speeds though: for me they combine simplicity and modernity, and they can afford to do that because of progress in materials and industrial design. Single-speed bikes are so great to ride – in London anyway – because they are both light and reliable, which they achieve by making use of some technological advances (admittedly basic, but nonetheless important ones such as powerful brakes and strong tyres). Going up College Road on my way to Crystal Palace is no more arduous on my single-speed than on my beloved and robust hybrid, thanks to its light weight. I also think that simply having a choice, a wide range of bicycles and frame types to choose from, is progress.

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    1. Welcome back, ourbicyclelives.

      I must confess I've been a bit sad not to have had more grief for the gratuitously offensive comments about single-speed and fixed-gear bikes. They were pretty much comment bait, after all. Perhaps John Romeo Alpha, who does a lovely blog called One Speed: Go!, and the entire membership of the London Fixed Gear and Single Speed Forum are too speechless with rage to comment.

      It's true that lots of people seem to enjoy riding single-speed and you're correct that some of it reflects improvements in components and so on. But I have also been struck by how many people say they ride such bikes because of the difficulty of getting reliable components - and I do think that reflects the current cultural pessimism about getting complexity to work. I still see quite a lot of people struggling with mechanical problems with fixed-wheel bikes (you have to keep the chain pretty taut, for example) and am generally mildly sceptical that single speed is the way to go. The prejudice may stem mainly from my iffy knees, which I think would give out pretty quickly without gears to smooth out the ups and downs and hauling of cargo.

      You are nevertheless clearly right that it's great there's a big choice of bikes. It's an exciting time, I think. We often don't give credit to the huge advances recently in bike technology. I'm certainly impressed if you can get yourself all the way up College Road to Crystal Palace on a single-speed bike. That gets pretty steep towards the top there.

      The Scott bike was pretty much a chance spot while I was preparing the post. It was on a stand on Cheapside in the City where I left the Long Haul Trucker for a rest. But I do think it looks sharp and practical. I have no idea how they ride.

      The Decathlons, I'm afraid, don't look good to me. They look like they'd be very heavy. The matt finish isn't at all flattering in my view. Anonymous at 23:35 (above) will think that's astonishingly smug.

      But I'm about to head off house-hunting in New York, taking with me my old Marin Muirwoods. It looks nothing like as cool now as when I bought it in 2003, so I'd better be prepared to be on the wrong end of these kinds of unflattering comments.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  9. My Specialized Tricross is in no way retro, but instead uses new materials and components to make cycling life better and safer - well, after the marketing BS gets replaced, anyway. I'll take it over a "Cross Check."

    I own and love steel bikes, but there are better out there.

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    1. Steve A,

      Thank you for your comment. I'm always pleased to see the regulars back down here "below the line" (as I believe young people nowadays say). Perhaps my own pessimism about the latest trends in cycling technology has got in my way.

      It may come as a shock to regular readers - but I'm not actually infallible. It has been particularly foolhardy for me to stray into writing about bicycle technology. I know about transport policy and a bit about philosophy and psychology. As you can see, I can't write about bike technology worth a damn.

      Invisible.

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    2. Having multible gears really wasn't close to being a necessity for me in my youth. I climbed hills with a gradient of 10% without problems - on an old Swedish roadster weighing c. 22 kg. And really, I'm not a big strong guy. Only when I reached the advanced age of 45 some 10 years ago, my knees started giving off signals that told me that perhaps gears aren't silly after all.

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  10. And I also like my three-speed fixie so far as well. No knee damage that is obvious so far.

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    1. And I must confess I've never previously encountered a geared fixed-wheel bike. I'll look out for them in future.

      I do genuinely think my current range of gears - and the ease of shifting between them - has got rid of what used to be chronic knee problems. But it may be that the gears on your fixie solve that problem for you.

      Invisible.

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  11. I hear rumour the Invisible Visible Man may be disappearing to foreign shores. Will the blog survive the relocation?

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    1. Andrew,

      We are privileged to have a comment on this post from so prominent a campaigner for Britain to take a last step towards becoming a full democracy.

      You are well-informed on the Invisible Visible Man's movements - and, indeed, today sees me waking up on the first morning of my house-hunting expedition to New York. I'm pleased to say that the first thing I saw on looking out of my lower Manhattan hotel room this morning was a man riding languidly past on what looked like a fairly fancy road bike.

      Unless you have concerns about the quality of the output, you needn't fear for the blog's future, however. My old Marin Muirwoods hybrid accompanied me on the flight in an implausibly big box and project A for this morning, apart from attending divine worship, is to get the thing put together and to start working out how to cycle round the Big Apple. Does one avoid or positively aim for the pips, I wonder?

      An update for readers will, I hope, be forthcoming soon.

      Invisible.

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  12. I used to ride my chopper to Luton from Stevenage as a young teenager, when I used to collect car brochures. I even used to ride the A505, something I don`t like doing now.
    I now cycle 5000 - 6000km per year.
    Am I an exception?

    Michael R

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    1. Michael R,

      Thank you so much for your comment. Luton to Stevenage is indeed a fair schlepp - and, significantly, it involves a crossing of the Hertfordshire-Bedfordshire border badlands.

      I suppose, in spite of my facetiousness above, there must be some people for whom delight at owning a fashionable Chopper converted itself into long-term enthusiasm for cycling, as I'm glad to hear it has for you. I had an irritated email from one other regular reader who insisted that his Chopper had also led to a lifetime of enjoying cycling (that was in Cambridgeshire, I think. Maybe it was a purely east of England phenomenon). But we're a fair way into the comments and about 1,500 people have read the post and you're the first to make a comment such as yours. So you may, I think, be one of the rare exceptions that proves the rule.

      Invisible.

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  13. All in all how hard was this to do, 'cause I'm going to be getting one of these trikes almost immediately & I've been interested on how to do an improve like that.

    Do you know more about bike shops click here

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