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The Rivendell Clem Smith Jr: Review from a Commuter

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I keep meaning to write more reviews of my bikes and never seem to get around to it, but my current daily ride is a new enough (and novel enough, and rare enough…) beast that I thought I should really just suck it up and do it this time so there’s something online. Because the gods know I’d be looking for just such a thing if I was shopping a new bike.

So, here we go. The 7 month, 2200 mile thoughts on Rivendell’s new Clem Smith Jr.

Edit 6-22-2016: now with picture of postures while riding in different Bosco positions

Some context and details first. I’m male, early 30’s. I picked up cycling seriously about 6 years ago to commute, and all my experience is in commuting and vehicular cycling. I have not tried an extensive glut of bikes, so, a lot of this is still a somewhat green opinion. I have turned in about 12,000 miles the past 5 years commuting around, so, it’s not completely without some experience, but I know the Rivendell market tends to have people with significantly more saddle time and I don’t want anyone thinking I’m coming from that level here.

I commute in Indianapolis, a notoriously flat city. There are rare hills, my granny gear doesn’t see much love. There are occasional hills, and I’ve been up a few 5-8% grades, but nothing long. I ride on roads, trails, gravel paths, and occasionally some packed dirt. I haven’t gotten to take it out to the land of single track yet, though I intend to try it on few mile beginner trail I did once with a performance disc hybrid. I have high confidence, but no certainties to report on that yet.

From November through April the Clem was my daily commuter out of habit and choice. In late April my car was totaled, and we do have another one for the household but it is now my ‘official’ default vehicle.

I’m about 5’9”, 178 pounds, PBH is around 80, and I have a 52cm Clem. I bought it as a frameset only because when it was announced it was obviously in line with an ongoing series of project bikes I’d been building to whittle away at my desire for a solid commuter/touring all-rounder bike, and I already had a lot of the parts I wanted to build it with. It’s not dissimilar from the stock builds spiritually, but I’ll take pains to separate thoughts on just the frame from the ride because components can matter so much. I’ll also provide build notes here for honest comparison.

Build

  • Rivendell Clem Smith Jr H 52cm
  • 100cm Specialized Allez quill
  • 58cm Nitto Boscos
  • Dia Compe DC138 hand rests
  • Dia Compe ENE bar end shifters
  • Shimano R550 levers
  • Performance Bike cross levers
  • Paul Touring canti (front) with Tektro fork-mount hanger
  • VO Grand Cru Mk II canti (rear) with standard Tektro saddle clamp hanger
  • VO Grand Cru touring wheels (high flange hubs, Diagonale 650b rims)
  • Compass 650bx48mm Switchback Hill Tires
  • Sugino XD-2 wide-low crankset
  • MKS Sylvan pedals
  • Shimano FD-2303 front mech
  • Microshift RD-M85L rear mech
  • Front and rear Surly Nice Racks
  • Zoom Microset 2 seat post
  • Brooks B17 Aged
  • SKS P55 Longboard Fenders

OK, so. I bought the Clem because I’d spent a few years using old steel bikes as a way to learn more bike upkeep, and my goal was to work towards a more do-anything touring-ready build. My second build of these was a mid-80s low-mid-end Fuji Sagres I converted to 650b and put some Albataches on. It changed how I thought about bikes a lot riding that, and convinced me I like upright bars more than drops.

By no means perfect, but it was a lot of fun. In a couple years maybe I'll try a similar build with a Sam

By no means perfect, but it was a lot of fun. In a couple years maybe I’ll try a similar build with a Sam

It was a great bike, but some issues. Clearance was tight, and that made me want a bike with room for better tires. The stays had started to shrink on road bikes by the time the frame was made, so, my rear rack and panniers were always in the way pedaling. And the frame was built for roads and light racing, not weight, so it had a tendency to flex a lot at the BB and was the only bike I’ve had with a ghost shifting issues under load. So, when Riv announced the Clem, it seemed perfect for my goals. 650b wheels in my size, insane tire clearance even with fenders, more mounting points for racks than seemed healthy, a rougher frame actually meant for weight, and a built-for-upright stance that meshed with my newly discovered love of multi-position upright bars while also promising to fix my occasional palm soreness from having a bit more weight than I wanted on them. And, hey, it was a Rivendell I could afford without the two years of saving I was already discussing with my then-fiancée. It was a long summer waiting for it.

My first build still used the Albstaches. I knew Boscos or Albatrosses were suggested, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the laid-back look of the Boscos, I still wanted something where I could jam if I was feeling it. And the Albatrosses didn’t appeal to me because I know my wrists get fussy if turned the way some of the grips I wanted to have would turn them on those. So, through the winter I rode it with the Albastaches, first on a Technomic 8cm, then later on an 8cm Dirt Drop when I found I was still having problems with reach.

I should interject here that even without studs (I couldn’t afford any when the snow started packing down, so, I kept riding all winter on some Continental Mountain Kings), the Clem was easily the best winter bike I’ve had. The long chainstays and upright posture distribute the weight very evenly and I had very few problems with worrisome fish-tailing or getting jostled along ice ruts like I’ve had on every bike. The low-ish BB for the type made getting a foot down when I did start to slide very easy, and every time I did it was actually enough to jolt the bike immediately back to stability. I could not be happier with the Clem as a winter commuter.

Original Albastache build. Full of hubris, but still a snow crunching machine.

Original Albastache build. Full of hubris, but still a snow crunching machine.

But, I was also never able to get comfortable on it. I tried different stems, different heights, different saddles (my B17 and C17), and in general the first thousand miles I had it I was adjusting something every day. By the end, I had sore bits, a stripped saddle adjustment clamp on the stock Kalloy post, angry knees from having the saddle too close trying to compensate wrongly for the reach, and some seriously sore wrists.

So, loving everything else about the bike to that point–the bump- and chatter-free ride, the ease of installing and swapping components, the stability in the snow, the way it carried weight– I had a long, dark tea-time of the soul and decided I’d trusted Grant Petersen to be smarter than me on the frame, 650b, friction shifting, and many other things. So, I was mostly being petulant not believing him on the Boscos. So, I ordered a set of them and the Shimano brake levers they recommend and rebuilt it with those and the current 10cm quill I had. I knew from experience on my roadster with a similar top tube length I still preferred a short reach, and from the fussing of my wrists that they were picky about bar angle, so, I opted against the bullmoose for those reasons. I saw a post on the RBW Owner’s group from a guy who loved his Boscos and had what seemed like the great idea of adding some Dia Compe knobs to them to the otherwise (to my mind) unusable rise portion could be used similar to the hoods and ramps of a drop bar for relaxed riding. I ordered a set of those too.

Second build, still working on fit and saddle choice/angle

Second build, still working on fit and saddle choice/angle

So, the second 1000 miles of my Clem have seen it be closer in spirit to the intention. And, I have to say, I have a lot of crow to eat. Not only is the Clem now far and away the most comfortable bike I’ve had–completely blowing my formerly stately roadster out of the water–but I’ve also turned in commute times as fast and faster on it than I did on the modded Fuji with the ‘aggressive’ Albastaches. I did, I should note, still have some lingering issues with finger weirdness after 5 miles on it that I spent too long assuming was an angle/reach issue, but which turned out to be related to the skinnier grip in the upright position for just having used Newbaums there. I later added a padding layer of Fi’zik tape scraps from another bike and overwrapped that with more Newbaums to give it a squishy torpedo grip there, and it’s been an absolute comfort dream ever since.

So, that’s the checkered history of this and my life lesson in trusting people smarter than me. Now some thoughts on the bike closer to its intended use.

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The Boscos are the biggest highlight here. The long top tube of the Clem was originally designed to make it easier to dial Boscos in without having to just use the longest stem possible, and that really shows once you get used to them. On any given ride I have three entirely different stances to choose from:

  • Comfortably upright in the main grips. Perfect for when I’m tired, riding with friends, or negotiating stop-and-go traffic.
  • A relaxed psuedo-drop bar lean thanks to the knobs at the bends. Great for long stretches where I’m not in the mood to jam but can still get a good 18mph cruise going.
  • A semi-relaxed/semi-aggressive position on the flat next to the stem. Excellent in headwinds or for shifting my hips to really boogie down.

boscos

Once I got over my (not uncommon) perception bias that the Boscos were going to relegate me to going slower and started learning how to work with them instead of trying to force them to act like I wanted, I found myself just intuitively shifting through all the different grips on the ride as the conditions changed. I found that combined with the Clem’s long top tube, grabbing them right at the bends they became the best bars I’d used for standing on the pedals en danseuse. I found the long back sweep was really great for hills because I could sit up and shift more weight onto the rear wheel, and that thanks to the long stays doing this didn’t unload the front so much it got squirrely. But most importantly, I found that I was turning in times as fast as any other commuter I’d built, including ones that weighed in with my usual commuting accessories at 20 pounds less than the Clem. Heck, as of the time I’m writing this I have turned in my fastest commute in 5 years of doing it full time with the Boscos.

So, if you look at the stock Clems and waffle because when you see those Boscos all you see is a beach cruiser, take it from me: you’re wrong. Give them a chance and learn how to ride with them and not wishing they were something else, and they’re a truly revelatory experience. I’m one of Those People now.

(A note: I had a problem with a clicking sound from my stem clamp once I switched to Boscos. I was using 26mm clamp Technomic with shim originally, and there were thoughts it could be that, suggestions to lightly grease it, admonishments to never grease it, and advice to use a stem with the right clamp. I remembered eventually I did have such a stem buried away and used it, cleaned the surfaces repeatedly to assure no grit and still had clicking. Eventually found the solution buried of course on Sheldon Brown’s website. The aluminum Boscos are sleeved, and the sleeve was what was clicking. Per his advice I used an air compressor to shoot some Loctite into the gap between the sleeve and bar until it wouldn’t take any more in and let it dry overnight. Haven’t had a click since.)

The Ride

A lot of the ride quality I know is down to the excellent Compass tires (which I love a lot, even if they are absolute wusses when it comes to road debris and I ended up putting tire liners in them before a month was out. Fun fact, even with tire liners they’re still the smoothest, fastest, best riding tires I’ve tried. And I haven’t had a flat since. I know, I’m still a heretic despite that…) Trying the best I can to rule the tires out, here’re my thoughts on it I can put down to the frame.

It is the most neutral bike I’ve had. As you might expect from the tube size and intention, it never exactly feels ‘spritely.’ But, conversely, it never feels sluggish either. Between the wheel size and the low gearing of the Sugino XD2, it always just seems exactly as responsive as I put into it. It accelerates so well a coworker I was riding past one day asked my if I had a motor in it after learning it only had 16 gears. It doesn’t ever feel squirrely no matter how I ride it. Out of the saddle in a sprint it responds just as smoothly and predictably as it does doodling around at 10mph with my buddy. It needs to be going a bit faster than my roadster to really stabilize for riding without hands, but now whenever I take the roadster out for a ride I can feel myself struggling against its self-correcting tendencies. Funny how you don’t always notice that until you use something different for a while. The Clem’s steering does, to me, feel just a little over-reactive without some weight on the front–and keep in mind when I say that I mean like a bag, as I always have an extra 3 pounds of rack on it anyway. With a handlebar bag on it though, the steering is perfect and doesn’t get wobbly without hands like other bikes did with front weight for me.

The long chain stays are great. For those not already on the Riv kool-aid, the Clem Smith Jrs feature the longest chain stays possibly ever used on a production bike, long enough Rivendell had to have them custom drawn. My 52cm Clem has 52cm chain stays, in a world where 48cm was long considered touring stuff and any bike your local shop says is for road use is probably closer to 42. Grant has an entire post on why he’s doing long chain stays that’s worth a read, but it’s been something even the dyed-in-the-wool Riv fans have been split over. But I went into them with enthusiasm and I don’t want to go back. They’re great for climbing, as mentioned, and between them and the ability to fit those massive 48mm road tires I barely even feel bumps anymore. I used to be really active about posting when going over bumps, and since the Clem became my full time ride I barely ever get out of the saddle for them. I now spend so much time not posting that sometimes I just have to remind myself to get up for a while and let the blood flow on longer rides. There’s a tight hairpin turn at the bottom of a hill on my commute, and I while I do feel a little slower going through that then I did on standard chain stays, I wouldn’t say it’s enough to make a fuss over. An extra second, tops. The bump-free ride and stability in snow more than make up for any cornering losses from the long stays.

I knew the bottom bracket was still comparatively low, but was still on the high end for a Riv, so I was a little surprised at how often pedal strike was an issue on the Clem. Combined with how far back the Boscos sweep and I’ve really had to improve my fairly lazy cornering technique. Nailing the coordination and getting the inside pedal up and getting my knee out into the turn to miss the bars as they come at me is actually a surprisingly rewarding experience though. It’s got a lot of that same reward hit that nailing a friction shift or posting just at the right time to sit back down with the saddle has.

It handles weight really well. Like I already said, the front seems to do better with a little on it anyway, and I haven’t found an upper end to that. A handlebar bag and two front panniers, carrying a DSLR and a growler and a six pack? Still fine. No good hands-free, but it needs only a light touch to handle basically as it does without the cargo. I’ve built it as a tourer if I ever get the chance to, but mostly I use the racks for carrying random things that come up. The rear rack sees a lot of use hauling 40 pound bags of kitty litter, or big bags of ice for parties. Once I carried one of those small folding end-tables on the front rack to a friend’s house. It’s been a dream through all that. Every day it rolls out it has about 4 pounds on the front via handlebar bag (on the rack with a decaleur, for the super curious), and about 5-6 pounds via the Riv medium Sackville with my commuting tools, lunch, rain gear, lock, etc.

So. Many. Bags.

So. Many. Bags.

 

Heavy Schmeavy

Heavy Schmeavy

And of course, it has the immediate benefits it does on paper. The long front-center means no toe-overlap. The long wheelbase means no heel strike (though I sometimes get it from the saddle bag). The massive clearances fit giant road tires with fenders without learning new swear words (though, the placement of the mount on the rear bridge is odd and doesn’t work well for direct mounting or the standard SKS bracket without bending an L in it, so, that is a valid quibble). My rear rack mounted painlessly, and I was just able to squeeze my Surly rack onto the front despite the mid-fork braze-ons being meant for Riv’s Nitto racks. I have heard that the fork on the large Clem might not work out so well since the spacing is different. The kickstand plate is immensely useful, and just a standard cheapie Greenfield kickstand works really well even with a lot of weight thanks to the long wheelbase. Much better, in fact, than with the Pletscher double, which ended up giving a rather shaky footprint and needing the stay bushings at an odd and not really confidence inspiring angle.

Without bags for rare once

Without bags for rare once

Conclusion? It’s still a young bike. 7 months and 2,200 miles is enough to have an opinion, especially since it’s had a few different builds and been through everything from snow and ice to 40mph head winds to midwest thunderstorms now. Since I stopped fighting what it wanted to be and embraced the Boscos it has become the best all-rounder I’ve owned, and fully capable of good times even if I do feel it more than I do on lighter bikes. My opinion is still maturing, but even before I was actually entirely comfortable on it the Clem still was the bike I’d grab every morning, and now that I am comfortable on it I have to come up with reasons to grab one of my other bikes. It’s wonderful, and I think it’s a dangerous choice on Riv’s part because other than the prettiness of lugs I have a real hard time seeing how their other offerings could function any better as a daily workhorse than this does. I know none of my friends will believe me looking at it that it’s worth $1,500, but I wish they would because I’ve looked at a lot of bikes and there really isn’t anything else out there offering the sheer versatility of use this does… so long as you can embrace the Boscos.

The Good

  • The Boscos. Seriously. Get some Dia Compe knobs, push those beach cruiser thoughts aside, and give’em two weeks. Three, if you have fussy wrists like me. When you get them dialed in right, they’ll change your world.
  • The stability. Weight, no weight, out of pedals, in turns, in snow, whatever. The bike is stable and neutral, ready to do whatever you want without fighting you about it.
  • Massive tire clearance. Use MTB, cruiser tires, or down to 42mm ‘fatties.’ Virtually painless fendering.
  • Mount points and braze-ons rivaled only by a few adventure touring bikes with more aggressive geometry.
  • The smoothest ride this side of a Townie.
  • A Rivendell for a price just more than a Surly, with all the quality and cachet that goes with the Riv reputation.

The “Bad”

  • When built with sensible parts and especially fatter tires, it’s not a ‘light’ bike. On the road you won’t notice, it accelerates like a demon and holds a cruising speed with little grunting. It rides lighter than it is. But, if you regularly have to carry it up stairs, I could see that being a pain. I’d say worth it for the ride, but a legitimate reason to opt against it.
  • The fender mount on the rear bridge baffles me still. I’m not quite sure why it’s at that angle, but it’s easily resolved.
  • At $850 for the frame set or $1,500 complete it’s still a hard sell for any of my friends, even though they all acknowledge I’m out there every day all year and must know my stuff. A lot of people are going to still opt for Surly/VO/All City because they’re ‘similar’ while completely missing just how unique on the market this frame is when it comes to ride, clearance, build flexibility, and mount points.
  • The 29.8mm seat post is fairly limiting. I stripped my Kalloy out, first post I’ve ever done that to. There aren’t a lot of other choices though. And it’s hard to use a shim because of the Riv lug and its point. Be careful adjusting the tilt on the Kalloy, don’t spend a winter adjusting it in anger and not always getting it seated firmly and the bolt too loose like I did.

Final Thought

I know Rivendell originally made its reputation making classic bikes free from the weirdness of the 90s and with beautiful, classic designs and ornate lugs. I missed that time first hand, and have only really learned the extent of it from the Readers and RBW group. But, I think by the time I got into bikes, Rivendell had shifted goals away from that and more towards a simpler idea of just making ‘bikes,’ machines that were versatile, reliable, and didn’t really fall conveniently into any niche. The trend of higher bars morphed into a preference for upright ones. The bikes have gotten longer, and bigger, and tires have gotten fatter. And within that second, newer, more specific vision of Rivendell I think this bike is a near-perfect resolution of goals they’ve been working towards. It’s not what made them famous, but I think it should be what gets people to stop thinking of them as a niche brand for well-heeled retrogrouches. The Clem is pricey compared to some bigger brands just down to the economy of scale Rivendell doesn’t enjoy, but within the scope of making a reliable bike that’ll do everything but race at a price anyone could afford within a year, it’s a knockout. Mine is modified to my own well-heeled retrogrouch tendencies, but except for the bar ends instead of thumbies there is nothing about it now that deviates far from the blueprint the stock build lays out. And if something should ever happen to this one and I need to replace it, I will buy the stock myself next time. Grant Petersen and his staff have given the world something really special here, and I just hope the world realizes that.

Me, I'm so happy I wrote a blog post just so more people would give it a fair shake

Me, I’m so happy I wrote a blog post just so more people would give it a fair shake

UPDATE

It occurred to me after posting this that I make a few claims about the relationship between the frame and the bar that people who haven’t been following the Riv blogs for a while might not get. So, for anyone viewing this from the outside, the Clem Smith Jr is an offshoot of a very long project Rivendell worked on that started off as a long bike prototype that was eventually destined to become their Joe Appaloosa touring bike. The original long bike and the bar that’s now called the Bosco were literally conceived together way back in 2011, with the long top tube being used to add the ability to use stem reach to dial in the fit of the Bosco’s insane backsweep. I still feel, though no idea how Riv feels, that the Clem is in a lot of ways the final form of the original prototype, as it kept the extra long TT and Bosco spec. The final Joe seems a bit more refined after the Clem with a shorter top tube to not lock drops out, and a different upright bar with less sweep. So, the Clem had about a four year gestation period and for people finding this in the future I tried to scrape together some links showing the evolution and theory behind Riv’s first production ‘long bike’ here. I’m sure I’ve missed some. If anyone gets ahold of me with any I missed I’ll add them.

2011

The new ‘BUBar’ bar debuts – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/11440959017/bubar
First Long bike proto – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/13522805152/odd-new-bike-and-misc-stuffs
The proto frame – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/13791776081/odd-new-bike-p2
Proto built, why it has such a long TT – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/13883032079/it-makes-me-feel-like-king-of-all-i-survey
More proto – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/13988654445/bosco-rubbe-contd-last-one-for-a-while

2012

The Bosco starts getting a name – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/16266667183/nothing-but-bitefullsms-alert-thing-at-the-end

2013

The long bike becomes Joe – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/40771104823/video-catalog-february-frame-deadline

2014

Clem explained – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/98196689054/clem-smith-jr-xplanation
Clem proto – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/99627421939/clemshots-and-impressions
The Clem – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/100109991719/mo-clem

2015

Clem preorder, official details and build recs – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/112641497369/prematurely-but-out-of-necessity-introducing-clem
Clems – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/113913313209/clem-clementine-progress-check-it-out, http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/113461257479/the-clem-clementine-samples-are-back-from-paint
Clem facts, brochure – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/116315759199/clem-facts
Why long stays – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/122375524519/if-theyre-not-longer-theyre-wronger-the-they
Clems in the studio – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/129863416824/clem-smith-jr-news-the-plan-was-to-get-the-frames

2016

Clem option changes – http://rivbike.tumblr.com/post/141975601759/last-chance-frame-sizes-cheviot-clem-appa

On The Town: Me and The Felt Verza City 2 Review (And Also Using It To Commute)

A Preamble, and Some Context

OK, first. I’m a commuter. I decided after a rough break-up that I wanted to get back into shape, and I decided to break out the old mountain bike from college and start biking more. Of course, years of disuse after years of abuse had left me a rust bucket with a bent rim. I set it out for the neighborhood kids to make off with and bought a hybrid. A cheap one, really. At the time, though, it was the most expensive bike I’d ever bought. And, it changed how I viewed biking. It rolled! I could make decent time and not feel exhausted! It turns out, I think fenders are sexy! No really! And, other than some laps around the adjoining neighborhood, it got used as a vehicle. It was a way of getting from A to B without a car. Work, groceries, my buddy’s place. That’s what i wanted out of a bike. No recreation, but transportation.

I’m not a weekend warrior. I don’t want to kick out Saturday morning and spend 50 miles grinding up hills. I’m not keen on the idea of doing a century. I’d probably have fun doing it, but it’d eat a day. And that doesn’t jive with my preferred use of time. I have too many hobbies to kill my free days going forwards in one direction. I’m also not a mountain biker, or a downhill guy. If I try to imagine myself barreling down a dried-out creek bed, I giggle. BMXs are only valid bikes near a half pipe. Otherwise, they’re clown-cars for guys with nicer boxers than jeans. Touring is a maybe. I might some day get into touring. Biking around the country and drinking coffee at strange cafes pleases my inner romantic. But  mostly, what I am is a guy who sees a bike as a substitute for my car, but with free exercise. This is important, because one’s reasons for selecting a bike are pretty much born out of how they’re going to use it. The bike I ended up with is probably not even remotely a reasonable choice for most bikers. So, i wanted to establish why I went with this bike in the first place, so we can get down to the brass tacks of reviewing it properly.

I didn’t need a light bike. The Felt isn’t. I needed a bike lighter than my last one, and the Felt is. I needed fenders and racks. I know you can buy those aftermarket and put them on. I have. I wanted ones intended to be there. Purpose-built racks and fenders always look better than bolt-ons. I didn’t need shocks. I bought the sauce. Shocks eat efficiency if you’e just sticking to paved roads. I am. I could go either way on steel or aluminum. I wanted something with a more road/aero profile, and less of an upright/cruiser profile. I wanted good brakes. Good rbakes are comforting when you’re getting passed by cars who love running lights. I needed gears. Internal gear hubs are awesome, and I love the very idea of them. But, if you’ve ever biked home with two glass growlers of beer for ten miles, you might think having a few more gears choices is a splendid idea. I have, and I do. I wanted 700c wheels, and rapid fire shifters. Those were my metrics. I wanted to keep it under a grand. I got a Felt Verza City 2. And that leads us to the review. The next page of this post is the review of the bike itself. The third is my thoughts on using it in the wild, and on commuting in this city in general. Those two thoughts are two intertwined to split into separate sections. So it goes. And here we go.

 

 

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