A mammoth of a day

August 18, 2017 § 8 Comments

Why leave Los Angeles? It either has or is adjacent to everything. Ocean? Right over there. Twenty-mile climbs to searing mountain tops? Over there. Winter skiing? Just up the road.

But people peregrinate. They’re never satisfied with what’s in their own front yard, or back yard, or even their neighbor’s yard. They want more.

Fortunately, if you want more, California delivers, and if you’re a cyclist seeking new spectacular vistas surrounded by 11,000-foot peaks, throw the bike in the car and drive up to Mammoth for their annual fall grand fondue. Don’t worry about having to scale interminable climbs. You’ll get all the climbing workout you need walking up the three stairs to your cottage, because Mammoth Village sits at 8,000 feet, where oxygen doesn’t hang out much.

The Mammoth GF has history, bike racing history. It first existed as a real stage race, the Mammoth Cycling Classic, and attracted world class talent during the heyday of the 80’s. In 1994 the race transmogrified into a one-day grand fondue, and is now in its twenty-third year, regularly earning kudos for its stunning scenery, car-less roads, and beautifully maintained pavement.

And although the ride has been around for decades, it’s now at the forefront of the new wave in cycling, where chips and timed Strava segments let riders compete for overall glory as well as for imaginary spoils on certain sections in the middle of the ride. In other words, like a Chinese buffet, you really can have it all: A 102-mile race; a completely chill, noncompetitive ride; an easy ride punctuated by at least one timed, all-out effort. You pick. And of course there are routes of varying length.

Here’s what you get for your entry fee:

  1. Pro style mass start. This pro style start makes you feel pro. You can bring extra carbon for your all carbon, 100% carbon bike and get 25% more pro. Neil Shirley might be there and might even autograph your chamois (before, not after). In other words, pro.
  2. Timing and posted results. It’s not a race, really. Okay, I call bullshit. It’s totally a race. Pin on your number, nail your timing chip to your ankle, and lock down your heartjockrate strap. Don’t look up from your Garmin until it’s done.
  3. Six rest stops. Basically, these are THE REASON WE RIDE. Burn 400 kcal, eat 1,500. Repeat until sufficiently bloated. Return to the start/finish in the sag wagon. The stops have everything you are going to need, in other words, sugar. And this year they will also offer the magic of Jeff Mahin, master chef. You can always add another 120-mile loop if you go overboard on his creations.
  4. Clothing drops. Since the ride takes place at 72,000 feet, there isn’t much air. Scientifically speaking, the cold molecules adhere to your skin better way up there and create something called FIC Syndrome (Fugg, it’s cold!). So the way this works is that you wear warm stuff to start, work yourself up into a hot bother, and then drop off your nasty duds at the sag stops. The volunteers pour gasoline on them and light a match, which provides extra heat for frozen fingers.
  5. On-course lunch. If you do the Grand Fondue or the Medium Fondue, you get fed a light lunch. This has nothing in common with the packet of crackers and cup of water you get on Southwest when flying six hours from coast-to-coast.
  6. On-course SAG support. As every cyclist knows, SAG is the safety diaper we all crave when stranded out in the wilderness with two flats (right and left). The grand fondue has roving SAG vehicles that can air up your legs, swap out a punctured lung, and true your badly bent moral compass as you lie in a ditch wondering where all the air went.
  7. Signature pint glass. In 1937, Alfonse d’Tuileries hosted the world’s first grand fondue outside of Paris and he forgot to provide beer to the finishers. Alfonse is recognized as the first Frenchman to be lynched by a mob since the Paris Commune, and a garden is named after him near the Louvre. The Mammoth GF ensures no lynching by providing a trophy pint glass into which to pour your Sierra Nevada beer.
  8. Finisher’s t-shirt. If you can’t brag about it, it didn’t happen. Cool t-shirt lets you remind your slovenly co-workers that while they were arguing with an inert TV screen over a bad call by the ref, you were slaying dragons and mashing pedals in the Sierras.
  9. Event photos. Let’s face it. Your co-workers don’t really believe you were in the Sierras, much less riding 102 miles through them airlessly on a bicycle. Free event photos can be silkscreened onto a custom t-shirt or used as templates for your very own Grand Fondue face tattoo. Let ’em deny your awesomeness with that.
  10. Timed KOM/QOM section. 102-mile grand fonduers get to compete in the KOM/QOM Strava segment. Brang it.
  11. Party. After you’re done dry heaving and have come somewhat out of your delirium, there is a massive bash in the Village at Mammoth featuring more genius food creations of Jeff Mahin, Sierra Nevada fermented beverages, dessert, expo, and entertainment, not limited to the whopping lies you’ll overhear as you quietly sip your kale-peanut butter–escargot smoothie.

This is one you’d be crazy to miss.



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The hard way

August 17, 2017 § 24 Comments

As the racing year winds down, I reflect as I always do on what I’ve accomplished since January. The answer is generally the same, “Nothing.”

So then I wonder, “What did I do it for?” The answer is always the same. “Because I didn’t know what else to do.”

Finally, I put my all-carbon bike, which is 100% pure carbon and made exclusively of carbon up on the stand, clean it, move the tires around, wax the chain, and admire the “Wanky” sticker on the side. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I ask me.

The short answer is “I don’t know.” But the longer answer (by two words) is “I like the hard way.”

It’s always at that moment that the decisive answer rings true inside my skull. I like the hard way. When I was young I rode hard. When I was middle-aged I rode hard. Now that I’m a grandpa I ride hard.

Not well, perhaps. Not fast, certainly. But hard? Oh, yes-indeedy. I tasted peanut butter puke at Telo on Tuesday. I felt my heart against my ribs on the Flog. I crawled up the hill at the end of last week’s 130-miler, barely able to turn the pedals. No trinkets won, no fucks given, but man, it was hard. For me. Not for you. You could have done it with one leg, blindfolded. But for me.

For me, the hard way is always the easy way, backwards. The easy way starts easy and finishes hard. The hard way starts hard and ends easy. Neither way is better than the other. Do you like chocolate or vanilla? They’re just different.

The hard way, when you think about it, isn’t even that hard. It even makes a handy-dandy List of Hardness.

  1. You have to get up early … way early. That’s the hardest thing you’ll do all day, in fact.
  2. Chuck the data and the power meter and the computer and the heartjockstrap monitor, find your discomfort zone, and stay there. If you don’t feel bad, it’s not good.
  3. You have to get dropped.
  4. Finally, you have to go to bed no later than ten no matter what else is happening in TV-land, fooball-land, or Internetland. This is crazy hard.

Interspersed with all that hardness, you have to rest, which is even harder than hard riding. Resting is different from sleeping. And it’s certainly different from drinking. Drinking is never resting. It’s fun but it’s not rest.

That’s all there is to it. It won’t win you many races but it will make you appreciate other people. You’d think it would be the opposite: The harder you go, the more contemptuous you are of those who ride pillow soft. But no. The harder you go, the more you respect people because you realize that they’re doing what they can, just like you’re doing what you can.

The harder you go, the better you’ll sleep.

The harder you go, the more you’ll appreciate the days that you don’t.

But most of all, the harder you go, the more quality you’ll wring out of your inherited meatbag. And as you’re able to wring the last mini-watts out of the meatbag, you’ll develop an affinity for other hard avenues in life that are equally and more rewarding.

You’ll go into business for yourself. You’ll dump a shitty relationship. You’ll study a crazy hard language. You’ll quit shooting heroin. You’ll slow down for people who need help (that’s uber hard). You’ll watch the hummingbirds swarm the feeder during spring and fall migration.

You’ll do crazy hard stuff, like no more sugar in your hot cocoa. Do you know how bitter that is? Actually, once you’re used to it, it’s not bitter at all. It’s just hard. Hard and good.

You’ll stop eating jam on your toast. Syrup on your pancakes. Cream in your coffee. (Kidding. No one is hard enough to quit putting cream in their coffee.)

The hard way makes hard choices easy. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. The load lifts. You mash down on the pedals and they give like a fist through butter. Why? Because the hard way is eventually, ultimately, finally the easiest.


Ants in your pants

August 15, 2017 § 14 Comments

I was in bed. It was Sunday. I had made my personal statement, and it was this: “I am not getting out of bed without pancakes.”

There was some spirited discussion before a settlement was reached, some promises were made, and my wife headed off to the kitchen. She popped her head in a minute later. “No butter. I’m going to the store.”

I turned over on my side. I could wait for butter. The butter would go, meltedly, atop the golden brown pancakes. Yummmm.

A minute later the phone rang. My wife was exercised, mightily. “Come down to the car! Now!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Ants!” she shouted. “Ants everywhere in the car!”

I lay there, caught between the iron pincers of a paradox. If I got up to go investigate the ants I would have broken my vow not to get out of bed without pancakes. If I didn’t get up to investigate the ants I wouldn’t get the pancakes.

I lay there and wondered what to do. Finally her voice became too insistent to ignore. “Okay,” I said. “I’m coming down.”

I went down to the parking garage where she was standing. Little lines of ants were marching down the charging cord and disappearing into the car. “What do you think?” she asked/demanded.

I studied them for a minute. “They are working a pretty good paceline,” I concluded. “But there appear to be quite a few wheelsuckers.”

This earned me a storm of anger, but before I could suggest that the ants would be better off with a double rotating line than a single one, I noticed a giant smear along the pavement, spreading out from under our Chevy Volt in a massive pool that branched off into tributaries throughout the neighboring lady’s parking space. Neighboring Lady was a clean freak.

It was a Valdez-sized spill. “Honey,” I said, as she gesticulated towards the ants. “Did you happen to notice this oil spill underneath the car?”

“No,” she said, glancing with mighty disinterest at the coursing rivulets. “Is that why the ants are coming?”

“I doubt it,” I said.

A few days earlier we had taken our car to the fine folks at Martin Chevrolet for an oil change and a tire rotation. I thought the tires were rotating fine, but they recommended it so we took it in. It might have been a coincidence, but it sure seemed strange that the oil that had heretofore all stayed inside the crankcase a few short hours after being worked on had now sprung a leak.

It was a Sunday so they were closed, and rather than drain all the oil onto our parking lot I drove down the hill, parked it in their service driveway, and let the crankcase empty on their concrete, not mine. I dropped off the key and rode my bike home. As I rode, I considered how many trips I’d made to the dealer and reflected that each time I’d put my bike in the back and ridden home. This Chevy Volt really had been eco-friendly.

The next morning they called and apologized. An evil genius at the factory somewhere had given them a defective gasket and the gasket had caused the leak and they were terrible sorry. Terrible, terrible sorry. Presumably the defective gasket had gone so far as to install itself, but I said nothing.

I picked up the car and they were sorry some more, but not as sorry as I was because when I got home I had to douse the entire parking garage with Simple Green and scrub like a madman for about an hour. Afterwards we went to Hollywood to entertain a guest. Hollywood is like hell minus the amenities. The worst part was the Chinese Theater, where an insane homeless vet lay on the sidewalk with a sign asking for money, and a few feet away two gentlemen were selling “One dollar water!” at the top of their lungs.

Each time they said, “One dollar water!” the vet would shriek, clasp his ears, and scream at them to please shut up, he couldn’t stand it, even though you could barely hear the vendors over the crowd. One of the vendors, realizing how disturbed the homeless man was, intentionally cried “One dollar water!” over and over, cupping his hand so that the call targeted the crazy dude, who with each cry would roll into a fetal ball and thrash himself on the pavement.

All around, Chinese tourists took selfies in front of the Chinese Theater, which was a fake, white entrepreneur’s imitation of a Chinese building.

We got back into the car and raced down the 101 at five or six miles per hour. Suddenly my wife shouted, “The ants! The ants are back!”

“Technically,” I said, “they weren’t ‘back’ as they’ve never gone anywhere.”

This struck the wrong note, a D# in the key of C as it were, and we began to argue about the ants, with me blaming her and with her blaming me.

My eldest son said nothing, but from the safety of the backseat he took out his phone and googled “ants in my Chevy Volt.” It turns out that this is a common manufacturing defect. Ants like electricity, and Volts have lots of electricity. It is a match made in heaven except for the passengers, for whom it was more like a divorce made in hell.

The ants didn’t bite (much) and we got home without any more excitement. I insisted that the ant pogrom be kept to a minimum, as ants are people, too. The spill had dried out nicely and my neighbor thanked me for scouring up the oil.

In less than 48 hours I had reduced my carbon footprint, been gentle to smaller, vulnerable animals, and cleaned up a major environmental disaster. I knew when I bought it that the Chevy Volt was going to make me greener. I just didn’t know how much.



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Take a deep breath

August 14, 2017 § 47 Comments

Sometimes, it’s really not about the bike. It can’t be.

As a friend of mine recently said (who happens to ride bikes), “Americans who history has labeled The Greatest Generation once died to fight Nazis. Today their descendants are marching to spread Nazism.”

Our president has strongly supported white supremacy by failing to strongly repudiate it. Everyone who can’t plainly state opposition to the people, ideals, and behavior that led to the Charlottesville rally for Nazism and the death of Heather Heyer supports it, too.


Bridge bike

August 1, 2017 § 40 Comments

I once had a friend when I lived in Colorado named Calamity Jones. That wasn’t his name. His name was Sam. But we all called him Calamity because no matter what he did, he did it wrong. He couldn’t piss his name in the snow without getting his feet wet.

Calamity was the nicest guy. He was a great skier, too, one of the best on the mountain I worked at, Keystone. But even skiing he was always getting hurt. One time he fell off the chairlift and broke both legs.

Another time, in the summer, he went mushroom hunting and came back with a harvest. “Psilocybin,” he said, and tried to give them away. But no one would take one because it was Calamity. “You first,” we said.

They were poisonous, of course, and he wound up at the ER in Dillon getting his stomach pumped. He almost died.

Calamity caused a bad traffic accident coming down Loveland Pass once. He got a DUI. He forged a check. He and a buddy tried to rob the safe at Keystone by crawling through a duct late at night, but they were too heavy and fell through the ceiling and both got arrested and both did prison time. I have no idea what happened to him, but he was a good person, the kindest guy, and things never worked out for him. At the pivotal moment he always chose wrong.

This guy had a lot of friends but he didn’t have any way to get through his troubles. He had no way across from his good intentions to good actions. He had no bridge.

I have another friend who is nothing at all like Calamity Jones, but he is a guy who, like everyone else I suppose, has had his share of hard times. He’s a good guy who took a couple of left turns when maybe he should have gone right, but unlike Calamity he got things straightened out, and a lot of the straightening he did with a bike.

He got himself sober and the bike kept him there. He lost a bunch of weight and made a bunch of friends. The bike gave him something to do with his free time after work that didn’t involve hanging out at the bar or hanging out around drunks. He bought a bunch of bikes and rode pretty good. But more important than his cycling prowess, he was friendly and fun to be around. If you flatted he always stopped and if you got dropped he usually hung back and waited for you. He always had an extra tube, too, and an extra CO2 canister.

Then he quit riding his bike. You see, he has a young son and he figured that as much as he liked riding his bike, he liked hanging out with his son and being a dad a whole lot more. Way, way more.

The last time I saw him was at a party. A bunch of people were standing around talking with him, and they were all cyclists, and they were peppering him with unasked for advice about how to get back on the bike.

“You need to do easier rides,” they said.

“Get a ‘cross bike,” they said, because the solution to any problem is n+1.

“Have you tried MTB? No cars!” they said, even though he’d never mentioned being bothered by traffic.

Finally, a couple of people started listing all the great things about cycling and about what a strong rider he was and what a shame it was to give all that up. He smiled politely and listened but he didn’t appear swayed.

I said a few words to him before he left. “You’re over it, huh?”

“Yeah, I’m over it.”

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Everything’s great. My boy’s only going to be young once. I’ve got my priorities straightened out and he’s it.”

I knew what he meant. For some people the bike is an obsession. For some it’s a status symbol. For some it’s a holy health grail. For some it’s a vocation. For some it’s a pressure release valve. For some it’s a lifestyle. For some it’s a political/environmental/social statement. For some it’s transportation and for some it’s an escape.

But for some people it’s a bridge that gets you across troubled waters. And when you’re on the other side you realize you don’t need it anymore, and you keep on pedaling through life, better off without it.



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Here comes The Sun

July 25, 2017 § 30 Comments

I was digging through the mail and came across an envelope that had actual handwriting on it. It was from a lady named Ann. She had read a letter to the editor in a magazine called The Sun. The writer was from PV Estates, and in her letter she said that a story she had read in The Sun made her think differently about bicycling.


Apparently bicycling in PV Estates has been getting a bad, or rather worse name over the last year. When you have a small community stocked with even one hairless shrub as horribly defective as Robert Lewis Chapman, Jr., it doesn’t take much to poison everyone.


Anyway, this woman Ann sent me The Sun with the story by Heather Sellers. It’s called “Pedal, Pedal, Pedal.” I hope you take a few minutes to read this spectacular and uplifting memoir. It’s something that every cyclist can relate to, the story of transformation, and Heather tells it so well and with such artfulness and power that all you have to do is switch around a few names and words and the story seems like your own.

This got me to wondering why so many people have been transformed by bicycling. Maybe it’s the same with golf or basketball or any human endeavor into which you pour yourself. Maybe bicycling seems special simply because it’s so accessible, unlike golf, and the joys of full-gas basketball don’t typically go much beyond age 35 simply because your knees give out.

Whether it’s unique or not, bicycling is transformational for a whole bunch of people. Is it because cycling is the thing that most closely approximates flying under your own power? Is it because you can go long distances exerting yourself while still able to think, talk, reflect, plan, relax? Is it because no matter what your age, with proper preparation you can bury yourself physically as completely as if you were twenty? Or is it because of the funny clothes and goofy tan?

Whatever the reason, Heather Sellers got it right. Get out of the house and pedal, pedal, pedal. And don’t let the tumbleweeds get you down!



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Future shock

July 24, 2017 § 32 Comments

My legs had very bad cramps. “Yeah, whatever,” you say. “HTFU.”

So I did. But the cramps had started at the first water crossing on Big Sycamore Canyon and got worse. “Yeah, whatever,” you say. “HTFU.”

So I did. And they spread to both legs. “Yeah, whatever,” you say. “We don’t care about your menstrual cramps.”

As John Middleton passed me in a cloud of dirt and filth and sweat and grunting, he said, “Come on, Seth.”

“Come where?” I asked. “How much longer is this fucking road?” I silently thanked dog that it was mostly flat, an anomaly for anything in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Couple miles,” he said. The last words I heard before he vanished were, “But the most horrible climb out here is just up the road.”

“What climb?” I wondered. I came to a water faucet where a dazed looking person was melting in his own sweat and filling his bottle, his hand shaking, his eyes glazed. When my turn came I lay under the nozzle and poured water all over my head, back, stomach, and legs. The cramps stopped for a moment. I contemplated living there under the spigot permanently.

Seizing the no-cramp opportunity I hopped on the bike and started up Horrible Hill. There were tiny little dots strewn out along it like insects stuck in flypaper, barely moving their little limbs across the painted blue skyscape that draped across the canvas of brown hills dotted with the odd green thing trying hopelessly to survive. Like me.

It reminded me of the time I got stuck on a mountain side outside of Shimogo-mura in Fukushima Prefecture. It was freezing cold and I almost died but the reason I remember that day is that it was the only time I had ever gotten off my bike because I could no longer pedal uphill.

I passed an insect on a mountain bike, barely turning a rear cog that was bigger than a UFO. He was panting. I was panting. The cramps resumed with a vengeance.

For the second time in my life I got off my bike because I could no longer pedal uphill. The insect passed me. “Good job,” I said, not adding the all important “you sorry motherfucker.”

My day ended about an hour later in wave after wave of cramping that lasted for hours. I had been attacked, dropped repeatedly, beaten mercilessly in the paceline from hell, and had had my lunch money stolen by a gang of bullies led by a meanie named Aaron Boyleston and his henchmen Marco and KK.

I’ve never felt worse, gone slower, or had so many people take gratuitous shots at my skull. I’ve never ridden slower on a 300-lb. cyclocross bike with 34mm knobby tires. I’ve never had so much post-ride pain. I’ve never had worse cramps, cramps so bad that the next day they still hurt. It was 72 miles, four hours-ish, and seemed like quadruple the distance.

In short, it was one of the best rides ever.

The Rivet Raid, as it was called, boasted a murderer’s row of elite riders, from world champion Keith Ketterer, who at age 102 smashed everyone to bits, to Aaron, Marco, Jonathan Woodbury, Jason Lavender, John Slover, Bart Clifford, Michael Penta, Todd Turley, Seth Huggins, and a whole bunch of people whose names I don’t remember and whose faces I barely saw as they blazed by me.

This ride also punctuated, for me, an amazing commentary about amateur road racing in America, if not the world. Bjorn Snider, a viciously strong dude who doesn’t race, i.e. pay stupid amounts of money to be treated like shit in ugly, faraway places by people who don’t like you, put on the Rivet Raid. It cost forty bucks, and here’s what you got (list sponsored by Pooh Bear-a-TX and Waldo):

  1. Incredible all-you-can-drink coffee, nitro/cold brew and spanking hot, from Gear Grinderz Coffee.
  2. Fresh pastries, energy bars, fruit, liquid hydration.
  3. Total tech support with VeloFix; their mobile van posted up at various points throughout the ride.
  4. Shortcuts that let you abandon when your legs fell off, and still got you back to the park in time to eat, hang out, swap lies.
  5. BEER. (Or, sigh, craft water.)
  6. Towering plates of delicious, freshly made Mexican food.
  7. Prize money in cash to the winners of selected Strava segments and to the person with the fastest overall time.
  8. Four to five hours of brain-splatteringly hard bike racing.
  9. Four to five hours of easy cruising with your friends if that’s what you preferred.
  10. Gorgeous scenery on some of the prettiest roads in SoCal.
  11. Bronchiole-incinerating climbs.
  12. All the camaraderie and friendship you could handle.

Did I mention that the whole thing cost forty bucks?

When you add up numbers 1-12, what you get is something called “fun.” It is a concept that USAC took out behind the shed and murdered with a tire iron decades ago. It is a concept that evaporated on the local level when race promoters realized that the costs of putting on an event would always create highly risky propositions that could result in huge financial losses, and in the best of times only result in very modest financial gains.

Fun died in bike racing when Lance brought his message of “you suck” to every cyclist, when the act of pinning on a number was submission to the whip of contempt by those who beat you, dropped you, and didn’t even provide a consolation beer and taco for having given them someone to abuse. Fun died when shit-ass dopers like Kayle LeoGrande, Rich Meeker, and the whole stupid gaggle of cheaters made your own puny but honest efforts count for nothing.

And people, unwilling to fork over $45 bucks for a 45-minute crit, decided to seek their fun somewhere else. Enter the Rivet Raid.

The ride was a distillation of the grand fondue, where you can ride with friends, ride slowly, ride hardly, or hop from grazing station to grazing station, and then pin it during the timed segments. The Nosco Ride has been doing this for years, and it’s only one of many reasons that thousands of people take off in the middle of the week to do that ride.

The Rivet Raid was a family affair as well. Bjorn’s lovely wife Barbara and his two brothers teamed up to pull off the event, and everything from the coffee to the food to the VeloFix tech support was spot-on. As if that weren’t enough, the Rivet Raid also hired the services of Steve Cohen, a top-notch photographer whose work speaks for itself. An adept of legends like Dan Munson and Phil Beckman, Steve’s photos truly captured the event.

Steve summed it up with stunning photography that should make you absolutely want to put this on your list for 2018, while Kristie Fox traveled the route in her pickup and took snapshots with her iPhone.

Nothing encapsulates the ride vibe better than the ending, when I struggled over Horrible Hill, legs cramping, bonking, and desperate to get back to the car so that I could make it to the airport by 3:00 PM. Bjorn came up to me. “Get on my wheel,” he said. I did. And despite my shot legs and snail’s pace he rode me back to the parking lot, but not before he had a blowout on his front tire.

“No worries,” he said. “I’ll change it when we get back.”

Then, as I slumped into the passenger seat and the pickup headed out of the park, Bjorn came sprinting up with a plateful of tacos, beans, and rice. “And don’t forget the Coke!” he added, thrusting an ice cold cola through the open window.

All I can do is sum up the Rivet Raid with a word that we need more of in cycling, and in life: Fun. And if the fun requires a beating out in the Santa Monica mountains at the hands of a gang of uber-legit riders, well, thank you, sir. May I have another?




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