Gravel biking: How it started, how it’s going…

by 106

Gary ‘Rocketdog’ Walls from the UK Gravel Collective (and regular Forumite) has shared this article with us about where he thinks gravel came from, and where it (should be) going. Does he paint a familiar picture, or is your experience different?

The picture below is the first one I can find of me with a gravel bike back in 2018. I’d been dabbling by adding gravel-esque tyres to my rigid forked 29er MTB in the months before but although a flat bar gravel bike is now a thing I don’t think it counted way back then.

My fashion sense has remained the same

I was lucky enough to be working in a bike shop at the time and the manager let me use the demo gravel bike that we got in for the showroom. I was to showcase this new fangled bike genre and we thought having a bike that looked like it had been used as intended, i.e. off road, would attract more customers to the idea than a nice shiny showroom pony. I wasn’t going to argue so for around six months I got to ride a Trek Checkpoint AL5, IIRC. This was in the days before GRX and so the bike came with a Shimano 105 groupset. To preserve the drivetrain, as the bike would be sold after the demo period, I swapped the double chainset (even back then I felt the 50-34 road ratio was not ideal for an off road bike) for a cobbled together 38t single ring, and added a wider range rear cassette which I think was an 11-44 (Revolutionary at the time!) and added a frame bag to carry my lunch and cake money (Again, nothing has changed there) and went out exploring.

I’d ridden a road bike now and then but was always more of a MTB rider and while the MTB is great for exploring rugged off road routes, where I live the off road is pretty tame and can only be accessed by using roads or tarmac, and even then the off road sections are short and sweet. The gravel bike then was the right tool for the job. I could ride 50 miles and the route could consist of 35 miles of tarmac and only 15 of off road, but the tarmac bits wouldn’t be as tedious as they would be on a MTB and on the gravel bike if I spotted a new to me bridleway or track I could ride it to explore where it went, something I’d have been hesitant to do on a pure road bike for fear of punctures, mud and tyre clearance etc.

For me this was why gravel bikes were so exciting, it opened up areas I’d dismiss as too far away by MTB, or even worse, that I’d have to drive to before riding. The gravel bike for me was very much like getting your first proper bike when you were a kid, the difference from only being able to play outside your house and not being allowed to go further than the end of your road, to being able to ride to the local park or woods (and further, sorry Mom and Dad!)

In its infancy gravel seemed the refuge away from the ultra serious road riders, and believe me some of the customers who came in the shop were way too serious about road bikes and wanting to look like pro road riders – to the point of duplicating the bike set ups of their heroes, even though it was clearly too extreme a position for them and was causing issues, with their full trade team kit, even though they weren’t sponsored #FKW (Ed – and breathe, Gary!) For Gravel riding there were no rules, you could wear what you liked, ride what you liked. If you met up with other gravel riders it was more about the chat, the sharing of trails and routes and there was no mention of “you must be able to maintain this *insert inflated kph figure* to be able to ride with us” and there definitely wasn’t a “if you get dropped, you’re on your own” rule that seems to be applied to every road club I’ve been involved with. I’ve taken riders out for their first gravel ride and their only experience was having ridden with road clubs and they are astonished that someone in the group would volunteer to go ahead and open a gate and wait until everyone else was through before shutting it and then catching up. “I can’t believe how everyone mucks in and supports each other, I love it” is something, or a variant of, that it I’ve heard many times in the last five years.

Group riding is awesome, so many shared experiences and laughs with no pressure to be a riding expert or Iron man distance fit. This area of gravel was growing and growing and I’ve met so many cool people by sharing my or their routes. But then a little pandemic hit the world in 2020 and suddenly all group rides were restricted and solo riding was the thing to do.

This also was a boom time for the bike industry, gravel bikes were suddenly the thing to have. This was absolutely awesome, but in promoting the gravel bike, companies began to sponsor riders or sponsor events. This is sort of great, and yet also I think began the divergence of gravel. When things opened up again we’d gone from home grown events where everyone shared the route and did it at their own pace to “stage races” with timed stages where there was only one “winner” rather than everyone winning through the joy of shared adventure and experiences. The grassroots events in the USA such as Unbound Gravel went from something that riders were proud to just have finished to arguments about the use of aero bars, female riders being drafted by their male team mates to achieve a win and that old favourite trade team kits instead of wear whatever you feel comfortable in. There were now “race gravel bikes” – light weight, with minimal luggage mounts and steep head angles, as well as “adventure gravel bikes” for mounting bike packing stuff, with forgiving geometry for riding for days at a time if you wanted to. Ok, I can forgive this as a perk of the commercialisation of gravel as more choice is always a good thing. But someone was waiting in the wings to take this all to a new level.

Hello UCI. The governing body of cycle racing, never quick on the uptake – it’s taken them a few years to stumble onto the band wagon – bringing the UCI World gravel championships and qualifying events, pro licences for racing, rainbow jerseys and, worst of all, a rule book as thick as a ebike’s down tube.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to watch cycle racing. I sit glued to the Spring Classic road races and the Tour de France, but now the “I can’t ride because I’m not that good” mentality has started to be heard in gravel racing. I conducted a poll via the 19k+ followers on my Instagram account and asked what was stopping them either starting to ride gravel, going to gravel events, or organising group rides themselves, and by far the most popular response was “i don’t want to ruin other people’s ride because I’m not quick enough” or “my bike isn’t good enough”. And this is my whole reason for writing this long ramble.

We need to get the message out that you should just get out and ride your bike, there are no rules, ride what you like, wear what you like. If you just want to ride to the top of a nearby hill and sit on your favourite bench and look at the view, then just do that. Ignore average speeds and distances covered, they are just numbers, your ride doesn’t need to be “epic” just because you see people doing extraordinary distances and trips on social media. Any and every ride is worth it compared to not riding. Ignore the commercialisation. If you want the latest bike and tech then get it, if you want to use your 1992 MTB, then do that too. Want to ride alone? That’s fine. Want to share the fun? Then why not plan a ride and meet up with other riders. Encourage others and let’s stop gravel riding from becoming elitist and get back to how it started. Innovation and progress is good but let’s also keep things simple and accessible for anyone to be able to join in.

NO RULES JUST RIDE

Live laugh love?

Check out more of Gary’s writing on the UK Gravel Collective.


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Viewing 40 posts - 41 through 80 (of 106 total)
  • Gravel biking: How it started, how it’s going…
  • wors
    Full Member

    Thought it was a well written article, I love my Camino as my go to bike for just going for a ride.

    TiRed
    Full Member

    I was riding a Raleigh 531 Avanti mountain bike with 26” wheels, drop bars and bar end shifters in 1993. There is nothing new. I’m still struggling with why gravel riding isn’t just turning off the road on the touring bike? I rode proper gravel in Mallorca on my Giant Propel with a new set of GP5000’s. One of my group was on 23c tubs. It’s just riding a bike, and riding is good. Sometimes gravel provides a shortcut and now I have a cross bike that can do that more easily. But a Dawes Galaxy will cope fine.

    sc-xc
    Full Member

    I enjoyed it, cheers RD. I’ve said before on this forum that it was your UKGravelCo ramblings that got me back into cycling. 🥃🥃🥃🥃

    rOcKeTdOg
    Full Member

    I enjoyed it, cheers RD. I’ve said before on this forum that it was your UKGravelCo ramblings that got me back into cycling. 🥃🥃🥃🥃

    Things like this are what makes it all worth it 👌

    Bullet
    Full Member

    Just bought my first gravel bike and can’t wait to get out on it. The bit about riding along and seeing a trail so lets explore is exactly why I got it (and other cycling buddies have them and they look great fun)

    Back when I was a lad over 50 years ago we just ran ‘racers’ with cowhorns and went what we called tracking through the woods. Got loads of punctures and broke loads of parts but brilliant fun which is what it’s all about…

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    I’m still struggling with why gravel riding isn’t just turning off the road on the touring bike?

    I’ve been doing the latter since I bought my Kona Sutra (2006?) and then replaced it with my Amazon (2009?). However, my 2023 Topstone is a very different beast. I’m no geometry expert but it’s not a tourer and doesn’t handle like one.

    jameso
    Full Member

    I also love the fact that these bikes are quite good at everything but a challenge on a lot of things. getting an adrenalin rush at 8mph trying to go as fast as you dare on a muddy slick trail while trying to stay upright on the bike is keeping my cycling passion alive as i approach my 6th decade. going “large” now is food portion size rather than the length of gap jump I’d attempt.

    +100 to that 👍🏻

    ampthill
    Full Member

    I was riding a Raleigh 531 Avanti mountain bike with 26” wheels, drop bars and bar end shifters in 1993. There is nothing new. I’m still struggling with why gravel riding isn’t just turning off the road on the touring bike?

    Well no one said it wasn’t possible to just turn off the road on your tourer or road bike. But not surprisingly you can make a bike that’s better for this than a tourer or road bike. Infact you mention that a cross bike is better than your tourer.

    So agreement breaking out all round

    munrobiker
    Free Member

    I don’t think gravel is as exclusive as RD is trying to make it. The UCI format of gravel is the closest to the gravel I ride most (and I ride the same gravel bike as RD!) – fast, in kit and with the focus being fit and fast. A gravel ride with a average speed below 15mph is usually a disappointment to me. And if there’s racing, there needs to be rules and constraints. And whoever is fastest is the one and only winner. That’s racing.

    But liking that doesn’t preclude what RD likes to do on a gravel bike, in the same way me liking riding in a way that he doesn’t seem to like doesn’t preclude me going on an off road drop bar tour, or bimbling about with my mates, or ragging it down sole Singletrack. I don’t get the hate for one specific type of gravel riding and racing at the exclusion of all others in the article. If it’s so free and easy, why have events at all? Why give it a name other than bike riding?

    Daffy
    Full Member

    All that’s really changed in cycling is the environment which surrounds it.  The roads are more crowded,  it’s more common among the population (outside of kids) and it’s more commercial, it’s more accessible and less technical.  Maps?  Nah! Fitness?  Not required so much.

    WE may be riding different things, but to those just starting, it’s the same thing as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago, but perhaps with less uncertainty.

    Blackflag
    Free Member

    “Aren’t bikes brilliant?” “Isn’t riding socially with friends brilliant?”

    Errr yes???

    Not sure on the need for a matching outfit to double underline the fact though.

    zerocool
    Full Member

    I still think that gravel-bikes as we know them (drop bar, skinny tyres, etc) came from the industry wanting to sell more CX bikes to none racers.  They looked at the fact people were riding MTBs on gravel and dirt tracks but also already owned XC, trail and DH bikes and someone thought “ooh, I’ve got an idea to flog these guys another bike”.
    And as is always the case, these bikes evolved into what we have now.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    @zerocool – my experience while working in a bike shop was actually the opposite. Lots of customers wanted (what we’d now call) a gravel bike but choice was mostly restricted to road, CX or MTB. CX bikes were restricted to 33/35mm tyre widths and were unnecessarily racey for the customers desired use. I think the mainstream industry took a while to work this out.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    While we’re doing Gravel…

    I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of women on gravel bikes – solo, part of mixed-sex groups and also women-only groups. Maybe it’s a local thing, but it seems to have struck a bit of a chord. 

    And plaid shirts… I don’t get it. My ideal shirt/jersey is short enough that it is fully covered when wearing a waterproof jacket. Most plaid shirts I see are much longer. Maybe, again, it’s a local thing? Or am I wrong in expecting to ride when it’s wet/raining and stay relatively dry and clean?

    matt_outandabout
    Full Member

    Not just you – the whole plaid shirt, often made of cotton, just does not seem as practical and comfortable as ‘proper’ riding kit when the weather turns.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    I do see riders who I know and respect wearing them – hence my confusion.

    bigblackshed
    Full Member

    When I stopped commuting on my posh hybrid around 2010 I put some slightly bigger rubber with knobs on and minced around a load of FOD fire roads and tame singletrack. That morphed into the same bike with wide risers and a short stem in about 2015.

     

    I’ve now got a very capable “proper” gravel bike with drop bars. It gets used as my gravel, road, tourer, bike packer. It’s great for some things, bloody awful for others. But it’s fundamentally a bike to go riding on.

    I did have some hostility when I tried a few CX races with 750mm wide bars and was turned away from a CX group ride because of no drop bars and baggy shorts. (Yes, really)

     

    Anyway, good article Rocketdog. Question though? Are you a real gravel rider without a plaid shirt and a big bushy beard?

    *Oh, wait!

     

    footflaps
    Full Member

    We need to get the message out that you should just get out and ride your bike, there are no rules, ride what you like, wear what you like

    Who are these people who don’t get out there as they are too busy staying at home worrying about what to wear?

    Our club rode gravel on Saturday as it was too icy for the normal club road rides. We had a complete mix of bikes from 1990s MTBs, to brand new Gravel bikes. Not a flannel shirt in sight. Lots of people had fun and no one cared what anyone rode / thought.

    I think RD has been drinking too much industry propaganda.

    13thfloormonk
    Full Member

    Who are these people who don’t get out there as they are too busy staying at home worrying about what to wear?

    That’s what I didn’t really understand, but RD does say he did a survey on his Insta which suggested some people were genuinely put off by not thinking they were fast enough etc. etc. Around me the majority of organised rides and groups are very much social, no drop etc., even those organised by the road club!

    In fact I’m usually billy no mates because family commitments generally mean I want to get out early, head down, maybe fit in a coffee stop and home for lunch, so typically not keen on a 13km/h group ride starting at 9 or 10am (sadly).

    igm
    Full Member

    @singlespeedstu – no offence taken, I was more worried about offending others.

    I was out with my wife and our 17 & 12 year olds on an icy, muddy, wet, slushy, snowy gravel ride yesterday.

    Great fun – and the correct clothing to wear was all off it.

    And I’m lusting after a new Gryphon with a modern groupset now.

    jameso
    Full Member

    I still think that gravel-bikes as we know them (drop bar, skinny tyres, etc) came from the industry wanting to sell more CX bikes to none racers.

    It can look like that from the outside but I think you give ‘the industry’ too much credit for ability to start these things off. Same as any trend, it’s always a core of riders doing what they like, a small brand or 3 make a bike out of the influences and see some demand, the bikes get interest and at some point later the bandwagon gets momentum and that’s generally where ‘the industry’ get on board and it comes to mainstream attention.

    GT claim the Grade was an early gravel bike and that came out in 2014/15 but the Lemond Poprad was a CX bike with discs maybe 6 or 7 years earlier, The DK200 has been going a long time in some form or another, almost 20 years? Hahn Rosmann made a disc 650B all-road bike in about 2003, the 1989 Rock-Combo, Charlie Cunningham and Jacquie Phelan..  ..the TdF was on dirt roads BITD, etc.

    Gravel is recent but only as a term. It’s all just a series of influences, sparks and timing.

    matt_outandabout
    Full Member

    Who are these people who don’t get out there as they are too busy staying at home worrying about what to wear?

    You have met some of the folk I know then? Genuinely I have a friend who always asks ‘what pace will the ride be?’ – even when we were proposing a few days of touring with panniers and pubs… His only experience of club rides is the fast 100km ride and much else is really hard from him to fathom. I do think that there are some people who, perhaps unintentionally, come to any group ride expecting a serious approach and significant work out as that is what group/club riding has been for them for their whole cycling career….

    rOcKeTdOg
    Full Member

    Are you a real gravel rider without a plaid shirt and a big bushy beard?

    I clearly got it all wrong in 1989 when I pedaled my 18sp Halfords MTB (yep, at least 1 size too big) with a beard and a cheesecloth check shirt.

    The beard and plaid is coincidence, can I help being a fashion trend maker? 🤷‍♂️

    jameso
    Full Member

    I do think that there are some people who, perhaps unintentionally, come to any group ride expecting a serious approach and significant work out as that is what group/club riding has been for them for their whole cycling career….

    So key to all this I think. I’d say road clubs have dominated social cycle culture until fairly recently, at least in terms of clubs you can join, organised rides etc Vs the fairly self-sufficient word of MTB. Road clubs boomed in popularity in 2012-2015 but I expect a lot of people didn’t like what they saw (depends on the club, I’m generalising here – fair to say road clubs are mainly blokes chasing performance stats anyway).
    So while there was a boom in cycling participation post 2012, the road clubs and British Cycling etc failed to offer them much because it takes more time to go from newb to brisk club rider that either side probably had time or inclination for. At the same time MTB has been going more and more extreme in its imagery in that time, trail centres are cool but it’s all destination stuff and people like accessibility. Gravel benefitted from all that and as Scotroutes says, look at the number of women enjoying gravel bikes (or maybe more correctly, gravel culture – they might be on any bike that works) compared to road or MTB. That bounce from road clubs to gravel is also (imo) why you see so many people happily* bimbling around off-road on bikes that are far more like road bikes than light XC MTBs.
    *mostly. I see a few fear-faces or wobbles and I do wonder if they’d be happier on something less sketchy off-road, but as long as they’re mostly happy and safe.. all good.

    tazzymtb
    Full Member

    for me personally “gravel” is racey and massive distances in the style that the yanks do it (which is ace) .

    What we have in the UK is dicking about on bikes.

    Trying to put a label on it always seems a bit silly, but folks do like a clique to join and if it comes with ready made image and special handshake then all the better.

    The big turn off for me is a the folks with a million frame bags all over the bike for a bimble in the woods. It brings back the worst bits of the born again fat bikerists, with the  all the gear for the iditarod to trundle around the Wyre forest.

    But as long as folks are having fun on bikes that’s fab, it’s still better than being a sofa slob.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    The big turn off for me is a the folks with a million frame bags all over the bike for a bimble in the woods.

    Yeah, but there is some logic in it. If I’m on a road bike and there’s an issue, I’m likely not far from civilization/assistance so I rarely carry much. If I’m on a MTB I’m likely to be more remote so I carry more – probably in a backpack. If I’m riding a gravel bike I might end up just as remote as on my MTB but I don’t like a heavy(ish) backpack when riding dropped bars. A bag or two strapped to the bike works pretty well. 

    chakaping
    Free Member

    Nothing has changed in cycling . All he has done is got himself in print. In deed I question the fact he has an Instagram thingy. That in itself is nowt but self glorification and contradictory to the article surely.

    Oof. Someone obviously missed the “good vibes only” bit at the bottom.

    Nice blog IMO, I don’t see it as posturing and I think I know what he’s getting at.

    Gravel can be whatever you want it to be and – regardless of whether the bikes are basically just 1990s MTBs or not – it basically makes you feel the way early MTBs did.

    I do wonder if those who weren’t there BITD get that same feeling? Maybe there’s an element of pleasant nostalgia? Or maybe it’s even better for them as it’s new?

    nickc
    Full Member

    I generally tend to see older guys and girls on Gravel, I think it probably reflects the sort of “big circle in the woods/moors” riding we used to do back in the ’90’s and 00’s, and these guys have gone from those bikes to bigger bikes and trips abroad, done all that and have come all the way back around to just riding on a bike that’ll do a bit of everything and they don’t have to worry about it. Just pack some coffee and sarnie and a  “I think I’ll go that way” attitude, and you’re good to go. 

    looks pretty cool. 

    sandboy
    Full Member

    Gravel can be whatever you want it to be and – regardless of whether the bikes are basically just 1990s MTBs or not – it basically makes you feel the way early MTBs did.

    My thoughts exactly, last time out. A bit of road, then a farm track or tow path.
    What’s down here? What’s over that hill? And away we go. Just like BITD.
    For me, it’s about exploring our surroundings, finding places you would never know were there, just out in nature, riding a bike.
    Riding on the road is tougher than ever, in my experience there’s a growing hostility towards cyclists and my life has been threatened twice this year.
    “Gravel” is now my preferred way of getting out on my bike and as a result, I’ve found miles of Restricted Byways very local to me that I didn’t know existed. Linking them up with a bit of road, bridleway or cheeky footpaths has given me a welcome boost.
    I hadn’t realised just how stressful road cycling can be. All of my road riding is on rural country back roads where People driving at speed and not expecting to come across a cyclist around the corner make for some hairy situations. My body was getting a workout but my senses had been on high alert the whole time.
    Just cycling, off the road, on any bike, on any surface is all good, being out in nature without the fear of traffic is good for me!

    ampthill
    Full Member

    I still think that gravel-bikes as we know them (drop bar, skinny tyres, etc) came from the industry wanting to sell more CX bikes to none racers.

    I think the big brands were quite late to her party. With smaller brands meeting a need and then the bigger brands realising they were missing out.

    It can look like that from the outside but I think you give ‘the industry’ too much credit for ability to start these things off. Same as any trend, it’s always a core of riders doing what they like, a small brand or 3 make a bike out of the influences and see some demand, the bikes get interest and at some point later the bandwagon gets momentum and that’s generally where ‘the industry’ get on board and it comes to mainstream attention.

    There you go. From the perspective of the designer Croix De Fer and Arkose

    andy4d
    Full Member

    Nice article, thanks.

    however 2 questions. In the very first picture are you wearing Ronald McDonalds shoes? And secondly, looking at the other pictures is a beard compulsory for gravel?

    footflaps
    Full Member

    And secondly, looking at the other pictures is a beard compulsory for gravel?

    Yes, an article about how it doesn’t matter what you look like, which only has photos of people who couldn’t be more stereotypically ‘gravel’ if you tried…

    Oh the ironing…

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    Yep. Really needs a woman, someone non-binary, someone of colour and someone in a wheelchair. Also see Dr Who… 😂

    convert
    Full Member

    Gravel has me conflicted, basically because the stereotype is essentially everything I am!

    I used to teach in a school that did not have uniform. Kids all saw this as a bonus. Because they were all about the same age and from a very narrow socio economic class band and with a healthy dollop of peer pressure thrown in this merry band of ‘no rules, no uniform’ warriors promptly went out and bought themselves their own identikit uniform to rebel in and be unique. Only this uniform was twice as expensive as a normal uniform and a bit less practical. Is see an element of this in gravel biking and the gravel bike ‘look’ so beautifully portrayed in the photos here.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    Someone up-thread mentioned fatbikes. There was certainly a similar counter-culture thing going on with those for a while, with folk dressing and fitting racks, bags etc as if every ride was going to be an Alaskan expedition. It was almost mandatory to carry a stove (preferably wood-burning) and have a brew on every ride. It settled down eventually. 

    rOcKeTdOg
    Full Member

    In the very first picture are you wearing Ronald McDonalds shoes? And secondly, looking at the other pictures is a beard compulsory for gravel?

    1.Planet x toe covers
    2. I think we’ve discussed that at least twice in this thread 😉

    Just pack some coffee and sarnie and a “I think I’ll go that way” attitude, and you’re good to go.

    This x 1000!

    Yes, an article about how it doesn’t matter what you look like, which only has photos of people who couldn’t be more stereotypically ‘gravel’ if you tried…

    I think that the whole point of wear what you like, be yourself etc is that you can wear what you want etc etc, even if people mistake how you want to be as being a cliché

    And flannels don’t need ironing 😉

    Yep. Really needs a woman

    There are at least 2 people in the pictures who will be a little distressed you’ve mistaken them for men

    jam-bo
    Full Member

    Someone up-thread mentioned fatbikes

    gravel biking is the new fat biking  is the new singlespeeding. Etc etc.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    There are at least 2 people in the pictures who will be a little distressed you’ve mistaken them for men

    Whoosh!

    DaveyBoyWonder
    Free Member

    Gravel is just a marketeers term for riding a dropped bar bike off road on tame farm tracks and stuff, and the activity significantly predates the term!

    FTFY

    BruceWee
    Full Member

    Gravel biking was invented in Norway.

    Or rather, in Norway they’ve had a thing called Grusvei sykling (literally gravel road cycling) for as long as there have been bikes.  It wasn’t really intentional, it’s just that as soon as you get a couple of kilometers away from the big towns and onto anything other than a main road you are likely to find yourself on roads that don’t have tarmac.

    It’s been done on pretty much every kind of bike that has tyres bigger than 32mm (although you can also find yourself on grusvei with your regular road bike).

    The only thing that differentiated it from ‘modern’ gravel biking was that people took it far too seriously for it to really be considered Gravel biking.  People would wear lycra, train for Grusvei races, and most men didn’t even have beards.

    Now it’s become a lot more commercial here in Norway.  You see a lot more people with full beards, flannel shirts, and expensive packs full of organic sandwiches and coffee.

    You still see the traditional grusvei riders out on the roads occasionally on their XC mountain bikes with HR monitors trying to pick up another Strava KOM but they are a dying breed compared to the ‘proper’ gravel riders.

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