Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Mystique of 'Ride Quality'

When describing what we like or dislike about riding a particular bike, we speak of that bicycle's "ride quality". But what exactly is that? In simple terms, it's how a bicycle feels to ride. Is it comfortable? how does it feel over bumps? how does it accelerate? how does it behave when turning corners? how does it feel when loaded? At least to some extent, all of the descriptions we provide under the umbrella of "ride quality" are subjective. And although there are objective, technical factors underlying the subjective experiences, the relationship between these factors is so complex and so sensitive to even the most minuscule variations, that translating sensations into explanations can be tricky.

This is especially true of my Royal H. mixte.  Its ride quality intrigues me, because it is like nothing I have experienced before. For one thing, the frame feels oddly soft and springy. Some may suggest it's the tires, but no - the sensation is from the actual metal. It's like riding a bike carved out of a cloud, and the feeling is the exact opposite of the vintage Motobecane I used to own - whose frame felt "painful" and "hard". The other mysterious aspect of the Royal H., is the extent to which it likes to keep its line of travel. You can launch this bicycle across a room without a rider, and it will go straight. When I turn a corner, it goes at the exact trajectory I want it to go. I have never experienced anything quite like it. I know that Bryan (the framebuilder behind Royal H.) chose a delightfully eccentric combination of tubing specifically to combat the discomfort issues I was having with my vintage mixte, and that he built the bicycle with neutral trail so that it would feel stable. But is it really as simple as that? I have ridden other bicycles with good tubing and neutral trail, and they did not handle quite like this. So I prefer to attribute it to magic.

Being an annoying academic by training, I like to analyse everything until I understand it. But sometimes the things we feel are beyond the sum of their parts - things like love, happiness, ennui, longing ...and ride quality.

36 comments:

  1. i think that the subjective term "ride quality" is governed by a slew of factors (including, perhaps, magic), not simply the type of tubing and geometry of the bike. i've been pondering this myself, lately, since i have two very similar road bikes in terms of geometry and tubing, yet one has markedly better ride "quality".

    here are the variables that i speculate may play a role in this highly subjective term (in no particular order of importance):

    1) handlebars: not only geometry and size, but material. i think the more expensive, heat-treated aluminum bars feel better because they flex less and reverberate less. energy is distributed differently.

    2) geometry of the bike: this is a given

    3) bicycle tubing: this can definitely make a difference in how energy is transmitted and dissipated through the frame. and i'm not only talking about aluminum versus steel versus carbon fiber. i also think it's possible that two bikes constructed with the same tubing with similar geometries can feel different: the joinery also contributes to how energy is transferred across the frame (TIG welded versus hand-cut lugs versus investment-cast lugs). in the case of a lugged frame, the consistency and uniformity of the brazing can also contribute to the feel of the bike.

    4) tires: this is a given

    5) wheels: a wheel that has been hand-built with properly tensioned spokes will better distribute road shock than a shoddily built wheel. rim choice may also play a role.

    6) saddle: this is a given

    so, basically i have put forth six variables that i think can contribute to the overall feel of a bike.

    what do you mean by "neutral" trail? zero? or neutral feeling? most road bikes that go where they're pointed and have what feels like "intuitive" steering have high trail.

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  2. without having ridden the bike, one cannot really comment except to say that it is really grand that you like it, having put so much effort into it. It's very easy on the eye...and not meaning to be critical and knowing it was a freebie...I am still a little surprised that you can tolerate that pannier, which I find tilts towards the unaesthetic end of the spectrum. Esp on such a pleasing bike. It seems to be crying out for something less bulky and bulgy and off kilter

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  3. Anon - The pannier technically wasn't a freebie, but a trade. I actually like the way it looks, but agree that it is too large for this bike. As soon as I achieve financial recovery, I will probably get something specific to this bicycle. Maybe a small Ostrich pannier.

    somervillain - From what I understand about trail, a number in the mid 50s is "neutral", meaning neither high nor low. The trail on my Royal H is 54.5mm. The trail on my Rivendell is around 57mm.

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  4. really? 57mm on the riv? that seems high for a rando-style bike. that's higher than either my jeunet or my shogun, both of which have about 52-54mm of trail. my trek 560 with its racy geometry has about 58mm of trail.

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  5. This is a very interesting topic, so please everyone comment if you have something to add.

    I don't have two road bikes to compare, but I do have a DL-1 and a Pashley. I keep comparing their ride quality, but every little factor I change completely changes the whole formula. I found that the angle and adjustment as well as type of the saddle matters a great deal because it influences the relative position of my "pedaling engine" and distributes weight. When I replaced the native 70s tyres on the DL-1 with Delta Cruisers, it became a totally different bike. When I lowered the stem and angled the bars down on the Pashley is became a different bike, too. Everything I did had such a large impact that it might as well have been a different bike. So, each these variables must have a large input into the overall formula of making these bikes feel so different from each other and from their past configurations.

    On the surface, the bikes are very similar. Both have 28" wheels with similar fork/frame geometry and are made of plain carbon steel, hi-ten for my Pashley and whatever the in-vogue name for regular bike steel was when the DL-1 was made. The lugs are similarly minimalist and both bikes were entirely hand-made by Raleigh and Pashley, brazed and so on, with very little machine assembly, except I suspect Pashley's wheels. I think the Dl-1 is a bit lighter, but my Pashley has a lot of "stuff" on it.

    So, initially they felt nothing alike. I thought the DL-1 is much sportier. But somehow I kept changing things with each bike attempting to bring them closer together. Why was I compelled to make them feel like each other? I never really thought about the whys until now. I learned a lot about bikes in the past year and a half, but I still can't even begin to systematically identify the exact factors that go into ride quality and describe their respect ranges of values.

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  6. That was a rambling comment there.

    I forgot to add that when I recently re-did my road bike's bars, tweaked the brake lever position and changed to cloth tape and bar-end shifters, it also completely altered my ride. Much better!

    I guess some bikes start out nice and comfortable, like your Royal H, while others (like my Motobecane...) undergo a long multi-thousand-mile journey to their ideal state.

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  7. somervillain - Why do you say that 57mm qualifies as high trail? I have read that 53-58mm is a neutral range. Rivendell states that their bikes are made with trail in the high 50s-low 60s.

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  8. MDI--which bike do you now prefer of the ever more convergent bikes? the Pashley or the DL-1...and why?

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  9. velouria, i didn't state that 57mm trail is high, generically. it may be in the middle of the bell curve (or "neutral") for a road bike, but it seems high for your riv, a rando-style bike designed specifically to carry a front load. my trek has a trail of 58mm, which i suppose is in the normal range for a road bike not designed to carry anything but the rider, but i doubt that it could handle a front load very well. my jeunet comes in at about 54mm trail, while my shogun comes in at 52mm. of the two bikes, the shogun can carry the heavier front load more stably. porteurs and bikes designed for fully loaded touring often have forks designed for the low 40mm range of trail.

    MDI-- this is exactly what i'm saying; switching out something as simple as the saddle (or the wheels, tires, or bars) can transform the feeling of a bike.

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  10. i'm decades into obsessing about why bikes feel the way they do. i have a big bag of opinions, but i'll say also that the more you know about ride quality, the more mysterious it becomes. einstein said something about knowledge being that way, that as a sphere of light grows, so does the circumference of darkness at its boundary. it's not that you're not learning anything -- far from it! -- but that no, you'll never succeed in understanding it all.

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  11. todd said...
    "...no, you'll never succeed in understanding it all"


    I guess that means I will always have something to write about : )

    somervillain - It's such a complicated topic, which only proves my point. Rivendell does not describe their bicycles as designed specifically for a front load; and they make a point of not using the term "randonneur", employing their own vocabulary instead. In practice, Riv bikes are able to accommodate both rear and front loads, while remaining highly maneuverable - which is why it makes sense to me that they have neutral trail. This whole issue is a frequent topic of debate though - usually between those who own a Rivendell, and those who do not but believe in the importance of low trail geometry. According to the latter camp, Rivendells should not be any good at accommodating front loads. Yet somehow they are...

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  12. This is such a fraught subject, there are sooo many reasonable opinions and so little concensus. I have my preferances and anecdotal experiances but about the time I start to think I'm starting to understand this subject on a deeper level, some bike comes along and displays some weird set of characteristics that blows my theory to shreds.

    I personnaly PREFER steel bikes with a little vertical compliance and alot of lateral stiffness, steepish low-trail geometry and a short-ish wheelbase, everything else that I can quantify seems to be a componant choice or a set-up issue. I think I'm fortunate that most of the bikes that appeal to me seem to be pretty satisfying once I get the basic riding position figured out. If all my bikes display differant handling and ride qualities and I find that interesting and engaging than I'm ahead of the game, right?

    I've fixed a bunch of damaged frames and put track ends on about a dozen more for people to make fixies out of. I warn everybody that I can make it staight and strong but it might not be the bike it was before. Some people feel like it's not as good afterward and some think I'm some freakin' genius because it is so much better...It does'nt make sense.

    I think it may be like love, the best thing in the history of the world somehow goes bad and breaks your heart and you waste the next 5 years chasing redheaded librarians trying to re-create it, then you somehow find yourself hanging out with a dental hygienist with an apartment full of cats and a boa constricter having the time of your life. Go ahead, take it apart but don't kid yourself you can really figure it all out...

    Spindizzy

    BTW, the preceeding relationship example should in no way be taken as autobiographical...

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  13. I have thought a little about ride quality, but given that I have no idea what the above comments about trail are, I surely don't know much. I love my current bike to pieces and it makes me want to own several bikes just so I can have the fun of riding them all the time. But then I remember how miserable my old bike made me after short rides and I shy away from acquiring something that needs fixing or having something custom built. How on earth could I know if it will ride like my current bike or my previous one?? It truly has me stumped.

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  14. Spindizzy said:
    "...steepish low-trail geometry and a short-ish wheelbase"


    That is exactly what this bike has. It's interesting actually, because I told the builder how I wanted the bike to feel and those were the choices he made. Based on what I myself later learned about comfort, I would have made different choices... but he was right, in that the bike feels great. In retrospect I am glad that I didn't give him specific instructions for angles and measurements, because who knows how that would have worked out.

    Oh and now I'll be picturing you chasing librarians with steepish low trail geometry...

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  15. I've built a fork for my bike to give it "low-trail" geometry. While I feel it works very well for riding at slowish speeds (less than 30Kmh), at high speeds on big downhills the steering feels very light. Since I do most of my riding on this bike at slowish speeds, I am happy with the tradeoff.

    Hey somervillain, I agree that handlebars make a big difference to ride quality. Changing handlebars can be almost like having a new bike!

    John I

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  16. I certainly agree that handlebars, saddle, stem length and tires can transform a bicycle completely. Still, with all factors remaining equal the frame itself does make its presence known - at least to me!

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  17. so timely- I just test rode a bike today and was really kind of meh about it. I want to love it and I might re ride it again. Some parts were great, some parts not so great. sizing and geometry were big factors in it I think.

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  18. Ride quality seems a very subjective thing, and it's something that can't be explained by the bike itself.

    Case in point - I have three bikes of similar geometry, all built from different tubings and qualities, but all sporting similar saddles and similarly sized (and quality) handlebars.

    1: 56cm Cannondale Black Lightning. Aluminum frame, cromoly fork, 2X7 gearing, 700X23 tires (conti Ultra Sport), B17 saddle, Nitto Mod 44 handlebars

    2: Nishiki Modulus. 58cm Full Tange #2 cromoly, 2X6 gearing, Nitto handlebars, 700X25 tires (Michelin Speedium), Brooks Professional saddle

    3: Fuji Palisade. 58cm Ishiwata triple butted cromoly. 2X6 gearing, Nitto bars, 27X28 tires (no-name CST's), Brooks B17.

    Now, you're probably expecting the Nishiki to be the best - it's the lighter steel bike, has semi-wide tires (for a road bike), and a sport-rando geometry. Second would be the Fuji. Heavier, a bit more slack, wider tires, wider saddle, and sport-touring geometry, and third would be the aluminum, "buzzy," Cannondale.


    Nope. #1: Cannondale. #2: Fuji. #3: Nishiki.

    Now, given that the tires are all at 100PSI, and that the Fuji is more comfy than the Nishiki, you can rule out the tires. Everything else is almost the same, even to the year (they're all 1987-1990). The Cannondale SHOULD be the least comfy, given what you read, and the fact that it truly has race geometry, but after 50 miles in the saddle, I'm ready to do 50 more on the 'dale, and am ready to get off of the 'shiki.

    The most comfy I've got though would be the pot-metal, 40 lb, completely stock-upright, steel wheeled, 3 speeded Phillips Sports. Of all my bikes, it's completely low end, and is half a step away from a department store bike, but that thing is like riding on a cloud. That I can blame on the super-wide VO saddle and Panaracer CdlV tires though...Besides, there IS something to be said for Raleigh built 3 speeds.

    I dunno, I do think it depends on a whole number of things, to include the way that the bike "talks" to you. Another person of my build and riding disposition might completely hate the Cannondale and prefer the Nishiki. Another person would prefer the Fuji. Who knows exactly WHAT it is?

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  19. Vee - You're not going to tell me which bike?? : )

    Matthew - I completely agree. The way I see it, there is a relationship between a person's anatomy, sensory preferences, and the bicycle's geometry and tubing. Just like in life some prefer to be hugged gently and others feel better when they are squeezed tight, some have a light and bouncy step while others a heavier gate - so do our preferences for the "feel" of a bicycle vary.

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  20. I'm glad your bike turned out so well. So often people go to extremes trying to optimise a particular trait and they give up everything else. Comfy bikes don't have to be all stretched out and capable of being ridden down a fire-escape and nimble, snappy bikes don't need to beat you to pieces(unless you want it too of course).

    My roadbikes usually have a lively, jittery feel that I like that comes from using really lightwieght,narrow tires pumped up to just this side of bursting. My fixedgear needs tires and I think I'm going to follow your example and find something wider and more practical and see what that does, it might be nice if that bike did'nt always feel like it was running from the cops.

    Spindizzy

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  21. Ok, here is one more factor that I think affects ride quality - the sound a bike makes.
    I find that when riding over a bumpy road, a quiet bike somehow feels less harsh compared to a noisy one. It is a bit like watching an action movie where there is a huge explosion - BANG!
    If you have the sound turned off then the special-effect has much less impact on the viewer.

    I suspect that many people who love their stripped-down fixies do so partly because they are so quiet.

    John I

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  22. johni-- that's a good point. and in fact, a quiet bike feels less harsh compared to a noisy one because it *is* less harsh. every time something rattles on your bike, it is essentially a harmonic created by energy being transmitted through the bike. that harmonic and the higher order harmonics that it creates can be felt, not just heard. that's one reason why i can't stand rattles on my bikes-- i feel they diminish the ride quality. that's also why i stated that the quality of the parts can make a big difference in feel (as in my earlier statement about handlebars: heat treated bars are less susceptible to higher order harmonics from road vibrations, which means they vibrate less and you feel less harshness in your hands). [as a side note, that's also why movie sound effects are often times unnaturally amplified to create a sense of unease in the viewer]

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  23. Hey somervillain,

    Yes I do agree, that the harmonics of parts vibrating has an effect. Some bikes seem to respond to road buzz and bumps with more of a "pure tone", while others seems to have lots of different parts vibrating which contributes to a jumble of frequencies. There are also some frequencies that are particularly unpleasant for humans - I think about 4Hz; I'll see if I can find references if you wish. But some bikes react to vibration like a fine musical instrument, while some react like a steel garbage-can lid hitting the pavement.

    The other comment about handlebars is interesting.
    I think that most aluminum alloys have about the same stiffness (elastic modulus), but their strength varies quite alot. So a handlebar made of expensive "heat treated" aluminum tends to made of tubing with thinner walls (to make it lighter).
    It can be made like this because the material is stronger. So even though the bar is just as strong as a cheaper bar, it will flex more than the cheaper bar. So my (tentative) conclusion is that the more expensive bars tend to be more flexible, not less.

    I have tried about six different handlebars on my bike to find the optimum for me. At one point I tried a mtb downhill bar (because it was the right shape), but it was so stiff, it made the ride uncomfortable. In the end I settled on a lightweight Aluminum bar, but made extensions for it to get the width correct.

    Interesting subject methinks!

    John I

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  24. john i: interesting tidbit about the handlebars. i will have to watch for that. for some reason, all my nittos (which are heat treated) seem to flex less than other, cheaper bars... but this can be for other reasons, i suppose...

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  25. How does the ride and handling of this bike compare to your Rivendell. I have a very similar Hillborne to yours and find it my most comfortable and well fitting bike. Your Royal H. sure is a beautiful bike.

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  26. somervillain said:
    >all my nittos seem to flex less than
    >other, cheaper bars... but this can
    >be for other reasons, i suppose...

    One reason could be that nittos tend to have either a substantial reinforcing sleeve at the stem area, or a bulge which significantly strengthens (and stiffens) the bar where most of the stress and flex occurs.

    Another factor could be that Nitto bars tend to have very well formed curves. If you look at a cheap bar, often the transition from straight sections to curved sections is abrupt, and the tubing is somewhat distorted and flattened. The reduction in tubing cross section would cause the tube to flex here as well.
    In contrast to this, the high-end Nittos have beautifully smooth curve transitions - the Nitto Moustache bar being the definitive example:

    http://www.brooksshop.nl/UserFiles/Image/DSCN1569.JPG

    So sorry somervillain, maybe I was overgeneralising/oversimplifying the situation before, there is alot more to it than just tubing material...

    But I do agree that Nitto bars (and other parts) are beautifully made. They somehow have that well tuned musical instrument feel... The bars I ended up with were nitto jitensha studio flat-bars.

    Velouria: sorry for all the technical talk, time for me to stop talking about ride quality and time to go for a quality ride!

    John I

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  27. "...might be nice if that bike did'nt always feel like it was running from the cops."

    Spindizzy


    : ))))

    Somervillain - Are you talking about the Porteurs vs Albatross? The latter actually seemed to flex a bit for me, whereas the Porteurs do not - which is the opposite to what I had expected. The Milan bars I'd tried at some point flexed even more though.

    are - They handle differently, even aside from the fact that the mixte is upright. I am still trying to find the words to describe what the difference is. In a way, the mixte is a bit more aggressive - while remaining stable and being possible to ride slowly when I want.

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  28. velouria, porteur versus albatross would be a poor comparison because the bars are very different. i agree that the porteurs don't seem to produce much flex (possibly because they are so narrow-- aren't the milan bars wider?). the albatross do flex a bit (possible for the same reason that the porteurs don't... they're freakin' wide). they're also made from chromoly, which may explain some of the flexing.

    my comparison is between drop bars of very similar shape and size. many of my older bikes came with unhardened, unsleeved drop bars, from brands like ITM, pivo and GB. some of these i am able to flex as much as 1/2" with my bare hands. however, i have also had several different models of nitto drop bars... i can't seem to flex them more than a few mm.

    i did ask VO about their handlebars as i was concerned about flexing, and i was told that VO branded bars are neither heat treated, nor sleeved (perhaps this is why they are so reasonably priced?). but i have been pleasantly surprised by the lack of flexing of the porteur bars.

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  29. Our (since sold) Albatross bars were alloy. They didn't flex if you put your body weight at the ends, which I did to check if my stem shim is working. They were good bars, albeit expensive.

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  30. Very informative post.

    I have acquired a vintage mixte that has a wonderfully comfortable riding position. However, as I'm going on more rides I'm noticing that while the bike handles very well at normal speeds, the front wheel wants to abruptly turn left or right as I come to a stop, and does this *especially* when I want to speed up from a stop. Not the best for city riding and makes me nervous sharing a car lane. hmph! :(

    So, all this talk of "trail" made me find out mine has one of approximately 60mm. I used two T squares and a new measuring tape, so that isn't the most scientifically accurate measurement. However, it seems the trail on my mixte is fairly long which accounts for the handling. I suppose there is no way to counteract this to improve handling at slow speeds?

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  31. there are several widths of albatross bars available; the narrowest are aluminum, while the wider ones are chromoly.

    (so, the same bars flexed for velouria but not for MDI?)

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  32. I never rode them, I just pushed down on the ends really, really hard and observed that the stem shim worked. It took me several tries to fabricate a "proper" shim. Diet Coke can won out as best shim surrogate defeating several other contenders. I noticed that the bars didn't flex only because I expected them to--to test for flex was not the goal of this exercise.

    It would make sense that tiny Porteur bars don't flex in actual use, but I am surprised that the Milan bars flexed.

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  33. Also, I am not a fan of really wide bars like what Retrovelo uses and the widest albatross, so I have no personal experience with them. Logically, I would expect all of them to flex more due to size, but can't see how it's a big deal at all.

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  34. so MDI, did you compare regular coke? or pepsi? i don't think this was a very comprehensive comparison from which to arrive at a "proper" shim. :-)

    i didn't think i'd like the wide A-bars, but now that i have them, i like them, especially when carrying a heavy load in front! they really increase my steering stability when i have 10-15 lbs in front. but it sure makes it tricky hoisting my bike up and through my narrow basement door!

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  35. How do you do it, I have no idea. That door is murder.

    Oh, and diet coke is the proper way, trust me. Superior to other tins with other soft drinks printed on them. I read somewhere the expensive Nitto shim is made from melted down diet coke cans. :)

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  36. Bicycles are like cookies. Why do mine come out better than anybody else's? Magic? Genetics? My mom is the same way.

    Why do some people not like oatmeal cookies with coconut and chocolate chips? They're nuts? They're wrong?

    Different people like different things. "Ride quality" is a lot like "flavor structure" and "mouth feel". You can talk about it all day if you want, but while you're talking, I'm eating your cookies.

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