Friday, December 17, 2010

The Vintage Bike Shop: a Visit to 'Old Roads' in Cambridge, MA

Used and vintage bicycle shops can be great resources on a number of levels. For the beginner cyclist, they can provide clean, tuned-up alternatives to the treacherous waters of Craigslist and ebay. For the DIY tinkerer, they can be a source for older parts and accessories. And for the seasoned collector, they can, on occasion, offer up a gem of a bicycle that one would not normally come across elsewhere. A vintage bike shop is certainly worth a visit, if one exists in your area. In Boston, we are lucky to have Old Roads - located in the Cambridge Antiques Market, just a 15 minute bike ride from my home.

Presuming that most of the bicycles offered are found locally, vintage bike shops are in a sense like museums of history: They give you an idea of what kind of bikes were popular in your area over decades past. It amazes me that no matter how many of these bikes are sold (and I've personally played matchmaker in several deals), Boston does not seem to run out of its stock of early full-chaincase Raleighs. Just imagine how many of these things must have been on the streets in the '30s-70s. The model above is an original early 1930s version.

(Cuppa tea?)

Situated in the dungeon-like basement of the Antiques Market (formerly a coffin factory!), "Old Roads" is really a joint project between two shops: Menotomy Vintage Bicycles, owned by Vinny,

and Cambridge Used Bicycles, owned by Ed. They began selling bikes out of this space in 2008, and have since become a staple of the vintage bicycle scene in the Boston area.

The full extend of their inventory is impossible to capture, due to the sprawling, cavernous nature of the space - which makes being there in person all the more exciting. There are rows and rows of vintage bicycles - on the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling, everywhere you look really.

Though initially, the focus of the shop was meant to be on antique bicycles, it soon became apparent that the local population was mostly interested in reliable 3-speeds and 10-speeds from the 1960s through the early 1980s, to be used as transportation. And so, increasingly, the inventory began to accommodate this. Now the shop offers a stagerring variety of bicycles, in one of five categories: vintage 3-speeds, vintage roadbikes, early vintage cruisers, antique bikes (pre-WWII), and some used newer bikes from the 1990s onward - including a couple of hand-painted "fixies".

For me, the 3-speeds are the biggest attraction. There are dozens of them, both men's and ladies'. Though Raleigh and Schwinn are the names you will see most frequently, more unusual offerings are often found as well.

Phillips, England

Royal Crown, England

Royce Union, Holland. And there are many others. With chaincases and without, English and Dutch, step through and diamond frame, some even with the original dynamo lighting.

And of course the antique offerings never fail to impress. The above is a Butcher's bike, most likely from the 1920s. 

I am guessing this butcher was a heavy guy!

There is also a slew of accessories in stock, including chainguards, handlebars, saddles, tires and racks.

Even vintage bottle generators are available, for those who find the modern ones too high tech.

Ephemera and t-shirts, too. 

In addition to its physical presence, Old Roads offers a number of online resources for the Boston area and beyond. They host a message board where visitors can discuss a multitude of topics pertaining to vintage bikes, as well as post for sale/ wanted ads free of charge. They offer a price guide for used and vintage bicycles. And they sell some interesting hard to find parts online. While in the summer, bicycles are sold only locally, during the winter they can be shipped outside the Boston area as well. For those looking for a vintage English 3-speed in clean condition, this can be a good option if your area has a shortage. 

Like proprietors of used bookstores, vintage bike shop owners tend to be genuine enthusiasts - which means that the customer can benefit a lot more from interacting with them, than from interacting with someone who just wants to sell their old bike. Interesting stories, helpful advice, and local bicycle lore are just some of these benefits. Out of curiosity: Are there used or vintage bike shops in your area, and do you find them useful?

42 comments:

  1. Ed and Vinny are such a great force behind keeping vintage bikes alive and well on the streets of Cambridge. Whenever I hear someone who hasn't been riding is interested in trying it again and needs a bike, I try to direct them there. I think they'll get a good bike for the money- refurbished to avoid the common pitfalls of buying vintage, but still unique and full of character.
    And although they have a huge experience of vintage bikes, they never condescend or are snobby. They just love bikes and want other people to love them too.

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  2. I'm going to make a shameless plug for an awesome used/new shop in Syracuse, NY. Although I live in Boston now, anyone living in the nearby CNY area who has an interest in buying used or refurbishing an oldie should visit Mello Velo. Sara and Steve love working on and modifying old bikes, keep a pretty good stock of older bikes that they've gotten running again, and won't ever push new merch on you if what you really want is to fix up an old friend. Anyone rolling through that area should stop there too. Every other "bike shop" in the area is more like a sporting goods store, but they're mechanics who love what they do - and that's a beautiful thing!

    P

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  3. I think that if I were to ever visit Old Roads, I would die of lust overload. Between all the old bicycles AND the antique shop I just wouldn't know what to do with myself!

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  4. cycler - I agree!

    P - Great idea. Everybody, please feel free to recommend local vintage bike shops, in case others from your area are reading.

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  5. Very interesting--just as a living museum I could get lost in a place like that for hours. I'm not aware of any shops with such a heavy emphasis on vintage in the Washington, D.C., area, though if any of V's fan know of one I'd love to hear it. I *am* beginning to see more city bikes around here, so maybe some kind of combo shop is indeed lurking out there.

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  6. Not even really decent new bike shops, no. I'm very jealous.

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  7. I rode an old Robin Hood (Raleigh's low-dollar brand) around college for a couple of years. It got me where I needed to go, a great utility bike. These "antiques" are similar, but sometimes I find it hard to see the aesthetics, when their steel is rusting and their mechanicals are worse for the wear. Still, there's something to be said for bikes that live on, both in fact and memory.

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  8. I think it is illegal for a shop to sell used bicycles in Washington D.C. However, I could be wrong about that. As far as the greater Washington D.C. area, there is Mt. Airy Bicycles [http://bike123.com/], who appears to have a large catalog of interesting vintage rides. I have not been there, so I cannot attest to the store's quality. If anyone knows of another store in the D.C. area, please post it!

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  9. velouria said: "Naturally the price tends to be higher than Craigslist, but in exchange you get quality control and accountability."

    I've found their prices to be very reasonable and consistent. I know first hand that Vin and Ed stand behind their bikes. They don't sell bikes before giving them complete tuneups and making sure everything is safe and ready to roll and if a bike needs an adjustment after purchasing, they're happy to do it. They're incredibly accommodating!

    I haven't been to their shop in over a year... I should probably stop in and see what's new! The only problem is that whenever I go there, I never leave empty handed...

    Anon: I will by driving by Syracuse this holiday... I will try to check out Mello Velo!

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  10. Fjelltronen said...
    "I think it is illegal for a shop to sell used bicycles in Washington D.C. "


    Wow!... It should be illegal to sell some of the new bikes on the market today, if you ask me. The failure rate is much greater than with vintage bikes.

    somervillain - The thing is, that, as you know, there are many DIYers out there who prefer to tune up their own bike and are unwilling to pay over $100 for a vintage 3-speed regardless of whether it's had a tune up or not. That makes sense, since they'll be taking it apart anyway and putting it back together on their own terms. But what I meant was, that even for those in this category, it can still be a safer bet to buy from Old Roads than from C-List (assuming sight unseen, from a far-away area), because of accountability. Even if an ebay/C-List seller has the best intentions, they can still sell you a bike with an unsalvageable wheel or a bent frame, and that might not come across in the pictures. With Old Roads, on the other hand, there is quality control.

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  11. Velouria, I agree. My point was that Old Roads' prices are consistently reasonable (not high, in my opinion, relative to CL), in that what you pay for a bike from them is probably more than the "bargain" that you might be lucky enough to snag on CL, but still less than a lot of the stuff sold on CL-- there are so many CL sellers who try to sell junk without any warranty or quality control at obscenely high prices. The accountability you get by buying a bike from Old Roads is icing on the cake, given the reasonable prices to begin with.

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  12. Nice to put a face with a name. I've looked at their website for many years. Their Raleigh frame serial number guide is, for me, the standard!

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  13. somervillain - I am not sure whether we are arguing or agreeing. Are you saying that their prices are not higher than C-List, or are you saying that the difference in price is reasonable and accounted for? If the latter, I agree and never suggested otherwise. If the former, I disagree. It is fairly easy to find a Raleigh 3-speed for $100 or under on C-List, especially in the summer. Some of the ads even say that it is "tuned up and ready to go". The difference between the bike in that ad, and a bike at Old Roads (which is likely to cost more than $100), is quality and accountability. Does any part of this strike you as incorrect?

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  14. Thanks for writing about these guys! They run such an excellent operation and it's a shame more people don't know about them. I'm constantly telling people to go there if they want a nice used bike.

    It's too you didn't mention their 30-day warranty. This is probably their biggest advantage over CL -- if something goes wrong after you buy the bike, they take care of it, rather than sticking you with the issue.

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  15. Velouria, let me phrase it differently: if you look at enough ads on CL you will see that there is a general "bell curve" of prices... the $50-100 3-speeds generally occupy one shoulder of the bell curve, while the $350-400 3-speeds occupy the other shoulder. the $150-300 are closer to the center of the bell curve and constitute the majority of 3-speeds that I've found on CL. I would put Old Roads' prices right in the center of that bell curve. My earlier description of "reasonable and consistent" more or less describes the center of the bell curve. Whether that is interpreted as being higher than the average CL price or lower is debatable. I feel Old Roads' prices fall squarely in the middle of the curve, or maybe slightly right-of-center. And of course, I'm referring to run of the mill 3-speeds, not anything rare, collectible, or exotic... naturally they would charge more for those.

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  16. And the idea of a bike shop called Metonymy is so deightful!

    I do remember bikes all the time riding along with traffic in my 1970s childhood - it was commonplace to have them slipping up alongside at the lights and I used to admire how the cyclists kept their balance without dismounting while stopped at the light. What ever happened?

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  17. "a bike with an unsalvageable wheel or a bent frame"

    I don't want to talk about it. I'm just going to go off in a corner and sob quietly if you don't mind.

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  18. Oh man, this is TORTURE... I haven't had a good old bike fix for months. The only things I've been finding around here lately is old balloon tired cruisers, I would LOVE a nice ridable 1930s rodbrake 3 speed. Can you call a weekend trip to Boston to cruise snoop around old bikeshops in Dec. a vacation? It might be worth the adventure...

    Spindizzy

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  19. Emma - You can see fixed gear cyclists doing that in Boston any time nowadays... or at least trying : )

    somervillain - Technically the bell curve thing is more or less correct. But people shopping for a bike and looking for bargains don't examine the statistical mean; they look for the lowest price available.

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  20. Spindizzy - As people in the phys biz are wont to phrase it, "Only for sufficiently small values of two."

    But who says it needs to be a Vacation(tm) to be fun?

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  21. david...no the other one!December 17, 2010 at 7:21 PM

    I am so jealeous of all of you on the East Coast. Here in the Pacific Northwest, most bike shops consider a 70's Schwinn an antique. In fact we have a bike shop in town that strips down 70's era bikes and sells them built they way you ask and charge for a tailor made bicycle.
    So, stop making me cry with all your beautiful old bicycles. I just can't take the thought of all of them riding down the streets pretty as you please.

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  22. If I get this excited looking at your photos of the shop, I'm pretty sure I'd come unglued if I were there in person. I think this is a post I'll come back to a few times, letting my pulse slow a bit between viewings.

    FWIW, I'm in accord with Sommervillian on CL pricing. At least in this neck of the woods, folks seem to know what their 3-speeds will fetch and price accordingly. $150-$300 probably accounts for 90 percent of all available stock.

    Thank you for sharing this and letting us experience it through you!

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  23. Okay, fine - you have beat me down and I've removed the Craigslist comparison : )

    But frankly I think it's a little disingenuous. (When is the last time my local readers bought a bike from Old Roads as opposed to Craigslist or ebay? A hypothetical question, mind you.)

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  24. Velouria- don't you love the metallic green paint and the victorian chain guard that the old Phillips bike has?
    Truth be told, I like the (pre-Raleigh) Phillips bikes more than the Raleighs.
    The typeface they used fits the bikes so very well.

    There are a few shops similar to Old Roads in the SF Bay Area, but nothing very close to where I am. You do find small local mechanic shops that cater to folks such as ourselves, though. There is one such nearby, and he does good work and is beloved by his customers.

    If finances and storage were different, I might well have picked up a bike or two from Old Roads in the last two or three years, even with the shipping costs. Some of the things you folks see out there just never made it this far west of the Pecos.

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  25. OOOOOH, AAAAAAH! I would love to go to Old Roads. Sometimes I look at their bikes online and my goodness! Their prices are reasonable and I would certainly appreciate buying a bike from somebody who knows their business, tunes the bike up etc so I don't spend two years trying to figure out what to do(as I have done with some bikes) and they sit in the hall missing parts and unridable.
    Bikes like that are slim pickings in most places. I bought a bike from a guy in my area who had oodles of old bikes that he 'fixed' up, but really had no clue so I got a bike that was not even ridable.
    I always look on craigslist but really really nice true vintage bikes are hard to find and get snapped up immediately. And then people have the audacity to call a bike from the late 80's vintage!
    I saw a raleigh DL-1 the other day in Vancouver and it was so stunning!
    I later saw it's owner riding it and oh I was jealous. Been having a bad week so to go and spend an afternoon at old roads would be like a thrilled little kid at christmas.
    Heather

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  26. Heather -"people have the audacity to call a bike from the late 80's vintage!"

    Anon - On CL round these parts there's a bike listed right now as "restored." It's been spray painted (badly, in the wrong hues), Some (hard to find) parts have been intentionally gotten rid of because "they didn't work" and not replaced, the saddle and pedals are new Wally World plastic shit.

    The seller says he hasn't ridden it because it's an "antique" and so wouldn't dare. Seems to think it's precious.

    It's a 60s Murray step through coaster.

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  27. To the other Dave, I don't want to rub this in TOO much (maybe just a little), but most of the really neat old stuff we do stumble across occasionally around here(Central Virginia) is picked up off the curb or for $25 bucks in the thrift stores.

    Right now one of the cool things at the local Universities (James Madison and Eastern Mennonite) is to bring your parents old 60s or 70s Peugeot, Raleigh or Fuji roadbike to school to get around on, then when you graduate and can't fit it into the back of your Civic, you abandon it in the bike shed and the facilities guys chop off the u-lock with a grinder and call up Goodwill to come get 'em. Try not to think about it... Most of the coffee around here is swill though if that helps any...

    Spindizzy

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  28. Though I haven't been to their shop, I've bought a couple of parts from them. They're helpful, and I recommend them.

    I've a theory about why there were so many English three-speeds in the Boston area (and why there are so many in Old Roads). Until the 1970's "bike boom," English three-speeds were commonly used as campus bikes. And, as you are aware, the Boston area probably has more colleges and universities per square kilometer than any other place in the US, and possibly the world.

    Also, before the bike boom, the Boston area was one of the few places in the US where adults rode bikes in significant numbers. And, at that time, three-speeds were about the only adult bikes (with the exception of the Schwinn Paramount, which was made in very small quanitites and was very expensive) available in the US. Three-speeds were commonly called "English racers" and had the allure of sports cars, at least to bike-deprived Americans.

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  29. kfg,
    yes, I generally find the word vintage to be amusing.

    Although I really have no idea about etymology I would like to try and describe both words as I see them:

    Vintage: Something having to do with the age of wine in French and not very descriptive of time.

    Amuse: If symmetry is the opposite of asymmetry and to muse is to think at a high level then . . .

    Ok this may be linear reasoning but I still like it!

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  30. I am becoming very jealous of the bike shops and the culture y'all(I can use that word, I'm from the South) have up there!

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  31. kfg: By that definition, I'm way past vintage. And I ain't no wine (and I don't whine, either!)

    Andy: Probably the best way to define "amuse" is to think of it as a synonym to "titillate."

    Forrest: I find it charming when southerners say "y'all." Here in New York, African Americans often use the expression. That makes sense when you realize that most of their parents or grandparents came from south of the Potomac, and many still have family there.

    It's interesting that most languages (at least all of the Latinate ones) have a second-person plural pronoun and, in some cases, verb conjugation. In other words, the equivalent of "you all" is part of the standard version of their languages. That means, of course, that "you all" probably came from French, as many Southerners (like you) are of Gallic heritage.

    In France, an amuse-bouche is a hors d'oeuvre or other appetizer served with a complementary wine. The difference between an amuse-bouche and an appetizer or hors d'oeuvre is that the diner doesn't choose it. Rather, it's a selection the chef send out as he or she is preparing the entree. The phrase literally means "amuse the mouth," and the tasty morsel and wine are meant to prepare the palate for the meal to come.

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  32. Re defining "vintage" - I think it's complicated, because there are several "eras" that differ from one another markedly.

    In one sense, anything before the threadless stem/ carbon/ aluminum era can be described as vintage, simply because the components and construction methods underwent a radical shift. So that would define vintage as pre-early 1990s or so.

    In another sense, one could say that "vintage" is defined as pre-era of globalised homogenization, when European bicycles started being made in Japan and when the Japanese components began to take over. That would define vintage as pre-early 1980s or so.

    I have seen both models used, and I have seen many debates about which is more accurate. On a 0-10 scale of importance, this issue rates as maybe a 1 or a 2 for me.

    And I think it's safe to define "antique" as pre-WW2.

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  33. Vintage is anything made BEFORE I was born so as to not make me feel old!

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  34. Velouria - "That would define vintage as pre-early 1980s or so."

    Which happens to match up well with another common factor used to define vintage on derailer bikes: ante-indexed shifting; otherwise you are left with the issue of how to define vintage if you are . . . Japanese.

    Have you seen 50s Japanese roadsters? Very nice bikes. It's a shame that few of them made it over here (all brought back by servicemen).

    And I'm still not quite ready to classify my momma as antique. "Pre-war" are vintage, same as for fiddles. Pre The Big One are antique.

    AARP is all after my ass these days, but I don't yet get any standard "senior citizen" (jeez I hate that term, what's wrong with "old"?) discounts, so I empathize with Justine and Forrest - I don't think I'm vintage quite yet, so how can the stuff I bought new, as an adult, be vintage?

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  35. In the used guitar racket, "Vintage" is commonly defined as more that 25 years old, often stretching to 100 years old, while "Antique" is reserved for either instruments over 50 years old, or stuff that's so uncool (or economically) un-collectible that even your great grandpa wouldn't have wanted it.

    "Vintage" is commonly used when the seller wants more money than the thing will reasonably bring on the open market.
    Come to think of it, this applies to a far broader spectrum of items than just guitars! ;)

    Corey K

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  36. "(When is the last time my local readers bought a bike from Old Roads as opposed to Craigslist or ebay? A hypothetical question, mind you.)

    Didn't Cycler buy her step-through frame from them? Also, we almost bought a Columbia 3-speed from them (years ago), which we had seen on a Friday evening after they had closed (I love how you can browse their shop area when they're closed, but while the antiques mall is open!). We decided to return on Saturday morning to buy it, but it had been sold just before we got there!

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  37. I'd also point readers to Vin's excellent selection of videos on YouTube - made for expertvillage. If you search for 'Vintage Bicycle' you'll find them. I live in the UK and will probably never visit Old Roads, but maybe one day.

    It's becoming very fashionable here to ride these as they're all part of the retro scene that's happening now. I get quite annoyed when people call me trendy because I ride a 25 year old three speeder... but I have been for years, and intend to continue to do so long after this fad has gone away... hopefully, when the trendies get bored of their retro rides, the price for a well worn English frame bike will go back to sensible levels. I got my BSA for nothing out of a friends back garden, and now people in the street ask me where I bought it. I see bikes on ebay and gumtree that five years ago you'd be able to pay the guy at the tip £5 for, or perhaps you'd see poking out of a skip, advertised for £150 or £300 as 'vintage bike, probably 1950' when clearly it's an 80's commuter bike, rusted chrome and 'perfect for restoration or fixie'. Gah! I need a cuppa. Rant over. Damned fashionistas.

    I wish there was an Old Roads style bike shop around here that stocked honest old bikes for sensible price. Perhaps one day there will be.

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  38. Swooning here. Swooooooooooning.

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  39. @ Corey K. Agreed. Sometime in the past vintage became an interchangeable term for second-hand. Why buy a second-hand bicycle when you can own a vintage one.

    Same difference other than the asking price.

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  40. i agree with Corey K, the word "vintage" has been loosely used. The poster uploaded some really stellar photos, really digging it. We got quite a few photos from vintage bicycles ranging from 1880's-1980's (REAL VINATGE!) Feel free to check them out!

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  41. Hi there, awesome site. I thought the topics you posted on were very interesting. I tried to add your RSS to my feed reader and it a few. take a look at it, hopefully I can add you and follow.

    Used Bikes

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  42. Hi There! I love the vintage poster behind the T-shirt! It's a very rare Hungarian( even in Hungary and Europe also) poster for advertiseing a bycicle school! AWESOME.
    I am wondering where u got those?! Good luck, nice old bikes!

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