Monday, September 12, 2016

On Fit and the Myth of Flattering Cycling Clothes


Last week I got a message from a friend who has recently, and very enthusiastically, taken up cycling with a local club. Having gone out on her first few rides, mostly everything is good. The beginner's group pace is comfortable, the bike is comfortable, even the saddle is comfortable. Nevertheless, she was getting pretty bad chafing in the inner thighs after every 20-30 mile ride. Chafing to the point of bleeding - way in there, in the crevices between thigh and crotch. It could be her saddle after all, I thought. But, intuition told me, it could also be the shorts.

Send me a pic where you're wearing your shorts, I wrote.

She did. They were lovely bib shorts, with a nice attractive design. And they were at least one size too big. This was obvious by the way the leg grippers gapped around her thighs, and by the looseness at the abdomen. Most likely, they were equally loose in the inner thigh and crotch area, and the extra fabric was causing the chafing. I have experienced that myself, with cycling shorts that have been even slightly too big, and have observed it in others. Whenever a cyclist I know complains of chafing and the saddle is not the cause, loose shorts nearly always turn out to be the culprit.

I tell my friend this. It is clearly not the answer she wants to hear. And she then explains that, oh - she sized up deliberately, as the smaller shorts looked horrendously unflattering.

Sausaging? I ask.

Crazy sausaging! she confirms, amused by the word.

Well, girl. What did you expect messing around with lycra?! 

And therein lies the rub, when it comes to performance cycling apparel. In order to do the job it was designed to do - not just in terms of performance, but in terms of comfort - it needs to fit right. And "right" in this case means tight ...which, for the vast majority of us, is almost guaranteed to be unflattering.

Now, if you ask me, the sooner we make peace with this fact, the better.

Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of marketing literature these days that would have us believe that their hip, gorgeous cycling kit will make us look like rock stars on the bike. And in fairness, the product in of itself might indeed be lovely - never has there been so much choice when it comes to tasteful, beautifully crafted performance cycling apparel. However, once we squeeze our bodies into said apparel, it is a different story.

So to protect you from false expectations, I am just going to get this out into the open.

There are only two types of people who look good in performance cycling apparel:

1. preternaturally lean people - you know, those folks with visible abs, chiseled thighs, sinewy arms

2. fictional people

Unless you belong to one of these two categories, you will not look good in performance cycling apparel. Doesn't matter what brand it is. Doesn't matter if it is minimalist or features the latest colorful must-have design. Doesn't matter if you've seen backlit photos of it where the models look epic. You will not look good in it. And if anyone tells you differently, they either:

(a.) are trying to spare your feelings,

(b.) are trying to sell you their cycling clothes, or

(c.) have grown so desensitised to the look of the human body encased in technical fabrics, their opinion cannot be trusted.

To be sure, there is a lot of cycling kit out there that I think is truly beautiful. But I am under no illusion that this means I look beautiful wearing it. One of my most comfortable and attractive cycling outfits, is a Richard Sachs set that, sadly, makes me look like a giant, leaky bag of blubber imprinted with House Industries typeface. I enjoy wearing it ...just as long as I don't catch sight of myself in the mirror! Being no less vain than the next gal, I do try to minimise the damage to my self-esteem. But when proper fit and flattering looks are at odds, I'll go with proper fit (i.e. comfort) every time, sausaging be damned! After all, when I am pushing hard on the bike I already look quite unsavory. The blotchy face, the bloating, the streaming sweat, the glazed-over eyes... to think that I could counteract all that with some glamorous cycling duds - even if there was such a thing - would surely be folly.

It goes without saying that not everyone who rides a bike requires cycling-specific clothing (see previous post!). But if such clothes are relevant to you, beware of falling into the vanity trap at the expense of proper sizing. Just remember: No piece of cycling kit is actually flattering. We might as well ignore our tummy rolls and pedal away in a beautiful shared delusion.



46 comments:

  1. I think that we should come to terms with the fact that cycling is an inherently unflattering activity. Clothes that fit correctly are almost too tight, and then, while we are cycling, we will sweat, blow snot rockets, and a select few of us will expectorate (hopefully in a manner that does not impact fellow cyclists). Plus, during a ride, nobody will be observing you anyway. Everyone will be too busy looking for road obstructions, enjoying the scenery, and pondering what they will eat when the ride is over.

    With all this in mind, we shouldn't fret about kit. We should fret instead about the attractiveness of our bikes!

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    1. "I think that we should come to terms with the fact that cycling is an inherently unflattering activity."

      Oh, not at all! A competent paceline is a wonderful thing, and even a solo rider with good form is a joy to watch, however ugly his or her clothing.

      As for clothing, though, I agree in general, or perhaps I just have lower aesthetic standards, but I see very many recreational riders in lycra that looks, of not wonderful, at least tolerable. At least from 5 feet away.

      And as for tight: I heartily dislike tight shorts, ie the normal lycra fit; the only cycling shorts I find comfortable are the looser wool ones, and I rarely wear those. I agree with the chafing diagnosis, but I find that loose boxers, especially if synthetic, are quite comfortable under "touring" shorts like Rapha's Randonee shots. And wool jerseys manage to be trim enough not to flap while being more flattering than lycra.

      Bicycle Quarterly shows photos of many randoneurs in baggy, presumably cotton shorts.

      Finally, for 100+ temperatures, no riding garment is more comfortable than a loose Hawaiian shirt made from rayon; they don't stink, either!

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    2. I think the Hawaiian shirts look really cool - very comfortable in summer for sure and casual/stylish. I also don't agree that cycling is "....an inherently unflattering activity" - that depends more on the participant than the activity.

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    3. I always thought about cycling as a really elegant sport, rider and machine in harmony speeding along the road, through the curves, down the descent...
      As for elegant cycling clothes, it's not so difficult either, if you avoid garish colours, lettering, or anything that resembles a pro kit.
      As for the fit of those clothes, the beauty about cycling is, once you've done enough of it, you are the lean guy or gal who looks good in cycling clothes.

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  2. "There are only two types of people who look good in performance cycling apparel:

    1. preternaturally lean people - you know, those folks with visible abs, chiseled thighs, sinewy arms

    2. fictional people"


    Hahahaha can I have that embroidered and framed please? Love the posts lately.

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  3. Agreed about shorts. But I find that wearing a loose jersey does me no harm...so I go up a size to hide the beer gut. Am I wrong?

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  4. "Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of marketing literature these days that would have us believe that their hip, gorgeous cycling kit will make us look like rock stars on the bike."

    Oh, but it does! And not just any old rock stars but from the hey-day of rock in the '60s and '70s: specifically, Vegas-era Elvis and 'Big Mama' Cass Elliot!

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  5. I have always found that Continental sizes are nearly always too small, I try to buy bibs as opposed to shorts and find that this is always a better option. Cheap is never good but mid priced can be just as good as the very expensive brands. Having said this it is always wise to take into account the usage, as over time lycra degrades and becomes loose and less effective. So if I spend a lot on any item of cycling apparel , shorts, jerseys, base layers , socks and shoes I try to price over the use I will get from same. The first "wear" is always the most expensive but by the time they are worn out ,say over a year or two the cost is justified in performance and comfort achieved.

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    1. If only it were that consistent. In women's cycling clothes, I find the sizing truly all over the place regardless of provenance. I do remember Italian sizes ran reliably small when I first tried stuff on in 2011, but more recently that no longer seems to be the case.

      Despite some nightmare experiences on long rides where I had to take layers off by the side of the road each time to pee, vowing to never wear bibs again, in the end I just can't NOT choose bibs. So much more comfortable. Perhaps one day the women/peeing thing will be solved once and for all, and we will laugh at the memories of the roadside bib-strip comedy.

      All of the shorts I have owned so far, mid range or high end, seem to degrade in one way or another after 2 years of regular wear. If it's not the lycra, than it's the pad, or the stitching, but something goes after 2 years like clockwork. When it's a pair of shorts that are truly comfortable, it's a catastrophe, as that model will be inevitably discontinued...

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    2. There are many ways to weave and finish nylon and elasthane. There are much more durable stretch nylon fabrics than what is readily available on the current market. There have been far more durable shorts than what is described above. There have also been fabrics with far different hand and drape than what is familiar now. I'm thinking n particular of Made in Japan Pearl Izumi shorts and Made in Japan Descente Lycra jerseys. Most Lycra jerseys are pretty darn uncomfortable. Everyone who had a Descente wore it hundreds of times if not thousands. The Pearl shorts were so comfortable bibs were no improvement. The Pearl shorts were wildly expensive for the time, $175 twenty-five years ago. The Descente was very inexpensive, extremely popular, sold in quantity by discounters. A lot of things can be done with Lycra, someone has to step up and do it.

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    3. The durability/longevity of bib shorts is something manufacturers, retailers and reviewers rarely mention. Would certainly make a difference to my spending more on a pair.

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  6. Could be due to the fact that the shorts are bib shorts.If your writer is long in the abdomen,the "suspenders" might be pulling the shorts up into the crotch too much.

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  7. A couple of minor points. Most useful for those who are already close to looking acceptable.

    You can't go wrong in basic black. Black shorts with no logos, no top stitching, no contrasting panels. Just black. Good luck finding such an article of clothing. I have two pair that meet the criteria. They are wool and were made thirty-five years ago. In Lycra shorts the flattering cut is the six-panel and eight-panel Italian design of the 80s and early 90s. You can't buy these anymore, offering this here on the off chance someone who makes clothing might see it.

    Full-zip jerseys. Full -zip takes off five pounds and might sometimes take off ten. If you need twenty it might be worth a try anyway, don't count on it.

    Do not in any circumstance use chamois pads so thick they look like adult diapers. They are bad enough on young gazelles. The bigger you are the more that pad will show.

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    1. Most of my cycling clothes is in fact black.

      Ibex still makes wool shorts and knickers, even bib shorts. Black. Padding not too thick.

      I will pass on the 80s/90s Italian cycling shorts idea to a friend.

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  8. Could this be part of the reason cycling seems to be proportionately more male than running? I recently rode a trail Saturday morning; I saw lots of men and women out running and walking, and lots of men cycling, but very few women cyclists. The few I did see were riding with men.

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    1. I was talking about this very phenomenon – cycling being more male than running – with a female cycling clubmate at the weekend. The reasons she gave were that more women than men are put off by traffic and many women are bothered by helmet hair, but it's easy to see 'lycra shyness' as a factor too (though TBH it's mostly men who should be worried by how they look in lycra, not women, IMO).

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    2. I think a lot of women are put off by the male ego thing going on in cycling. Often an inability to ride as a group no matter what the ability but a need to show everyone who's the boss is off putting. Then the entry cost is quite high as well.

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    3. Thinking about it, I guess it might be because it's easier to talk with your friends while you're walking or running than while you're biking.

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  9. IMHO, the main cause of "Sausaging" in women's cycling shorts is that the inseams are cut WAY TOO SHORT! Seriously, the average inseam in women's cycling shorts is 7-8 inches. This means that the length comes right about to the biggest section of one's thigh - at least that's where it does on me. Maybe if you're a 5'1" pixie that would be a good length, but I'm 5'8" tall, and those shorts just look ridiculous on me. When the short hit you at the biggest part of the leg it causes two problems - first you need tighter elastic to keep them from rolling up, and second, it hits you right where there is more material to bulge.

    Of course, if you look at men's cycling shorts, this is no problem. They're all cut significantly longer so that they hit just a few inches above the knee, BELOW the largest section of the leg. Why women have to have shorter shorts is beyond me... apparently we need to show more leg or something.

    Anyhow, after years of searching I have finally found 2 companies that make longer inseam shorts for women. Terry and Louis Garneau. By far my favorites are my Garneau Neo Power shorts. They have a 10.5" inseam - require NO elastic to hold them in place, and not a kielbasa in sight! YMMV

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    1. I absolutely agree with that^! In fact, I find that a Capri is more comfortable for me and doesn't cause sausaging.

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  10. I wish someone would indeed the Yehuda Moon strips, so I could find the one where Joe is told that bike shorts count as indecent exposure of you're more that 10 feet from the bike. (3.3m, for those that don't use archaic units)

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    1. Oh, "indeed" was supposed to be "index." Sorry!

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  11. That's why I stick to black cycling shorts/bibs, and generally the same for tops. Black is always "slimming".

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  12. One of the dumbest things about this dumb sport we love so much is this idea that it makes us look SO DAMN GOOD. Sure there's Grace and Beauty to it at times, but that's true of Pole Vaulting as well and that's just Dudes stumbling over a stick(if you aren't into it).

    When we jump on a bike and think we can be Eddy Merckx circa 1970, we're no different than that guy who works down the hall in I.T. who thinks he suddenly becomes circa 1980 EDDIE VAN EFFING HALEN when he leaps on-stage at the Community Center in HIS Lycra with an imaginary Flying V slung low and the glare of a million spotlights lighting up his brain.

    And we all know what THAT looks like from the outside.

    Why do we have to suit up to go inhabit this adjacent but disconnected reality where we thrash around to music only we can hear? It seems weird to everyone but us.

    But we have these iconic images that inspire and define us and we can't let them go. I wish there would have been cameras when I was 20. You guys have NO IDEA how SPECTACULAR I think I was on the bike. No really. Off the scale, TRUMPIAN in my splendor. Now, I have to resort to all the tricks, plain black Kevlar bib shorts, Short sleeve Navy Blue Jersey with those big spangled Ziggy Stardust lapels to subtly center the viewers eye between the areas of maximum sag just above and below. I sometimes wonder if a Cape might help.

    Nope, we just look like dorks to everyone but us. Tell your friend to just turn up her imaginary Amplifiers and get on with it. She's going to look AWESOME!

    Spindizzy





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  13. I am happy that I do not need to wear cycling specific clothing, to be honest I don't see why riding a bike necessitates wearing skin tight lycra and that revolting looking padding. The clothes typically worn by joggers is close fitting, comfortable and in many cases quite attractive teamed with a zip up hoodie, t-shirt or similar - there is also mountain biking apparel which serves well on the trail and as urban wear. There is a small company (Shredly) which sells beautiful leggings for female mountain bike riders, great colours and fit, also long shorts. The strict road cyclist kit is definitely not flattering, in many cases it is quite hideous, but there are many choices out there, no one is compelled to wear such clothing, even if they are into performance riding.

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    1. It is very difficult to explain to someone who doesn't ride in a way that benefits from cycling clothes, in what way and under what circumstances it is more comfortable. Just trust me when I say that there *are* such circumstances. Otherwise I would never subject myself to the look!

      That said, I actually do not think cycling clothes are all that different from jogging clothes, aside maybe from the padding. Unfortunately, the position of sitting on the bike vs running is in itself more unflattering when you're wearing something tight - especially in the mid region where everything bunches up...

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    2. I do wear clothing which is comfortable for cycling - i.e I wouldn't wear tailored pants or a dress/skirt when riding either my road or mountain bike. I spend many hours at a time riding rough single track and downhill trails, so I understand the need to wear clothing which compliments the sport of cycling. It just happens that the style of clothing I choose can be worn both on and off the bike and will not look out of place. I also like to be creative with what I wear, I have a sense of my own style and enjoy that individuality, I wouldn't like to go out on my bike looking like a clone.

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  14. I rarely travel without a bag/pannier of some sort. In it is a pair of loose yoga pants for a cover up, or a wrap skirt. My jerseys are always rather loose, but my knicks are close fitting. Not to be inflicted on other diners.

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  15. Now, this is journalism. This hard-hitting piece of anti-marketing could lead to the downfall of the bike clothing industry. I'm not kidding. I realized a while ago that my bike jerseys were not superior to the $12 synthetic gym t-shirts at Target, so I started wearing those. My bike usually has some form of luggage, so I can do without the pockets. Then one hot summer when my tight bike shorts were staying too damp, I started using the $12 synthetic gym shorts they have at Target. The loose fit shed moisture faster, so they were actually better. With a good saddle I found the padding usually unnecessary, and I found the comparatively long legs prevented chafing despite the looseness. Athleticism of rides has not meant the cheap clothes don't work. If the shorts are black and the shirt is a bright color, I even look like a cyclist from a distance.

    Walter

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  16. Your sermons are getting more pointed. Good for you!

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  17. I have given up wearing cycling specific apparel years ago and never looked back. Except for cycling gloves, I just wear regular clothes.

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  18. http://www.rivbike.com/product-p/short.htm
    https://www.amazon.ca/Andiamo-Womens-Padded-Skins-White/dp/B001M9L3OK/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=sports&ie=UTF8&qid=1473811524&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=andiamo+padded+bike+underwear

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  19. Lately, I've been pointing out that my touring, non-clingy, cycling knickers are both shorter in the leg and and better looking than the basketball shorts that a lot of guys in there teens and twenties wear.

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    1. Michael: I've been thinking of knickers since Fall is approaching. Who makes yours and where can I find them (online if possible)? I've got some heavier wool knickers for cold weather, but I'd like a pair or two that are comfortable up to the mid '60s while not being too thin. Are yours by any chance the Compass knickers? If so, over what temperature range do you find them comfortable without underlayers? Thanks.

      Also, if anyone has ideas or sources for long riding pants, like those you used to see in British cycling books of the '60s and '70s -- trim, pegged ankles, but not form fitting like tights -- I'd be very interested to hear about them.

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    2. https://www.amazon.ca/Mountain-Cycling-Trousers-Breathable-Anti-Sweat/dp/B01CJ7YHRI/ref=sr_1_1?s=sports&ie=UTF8&qid=1473869138&sr=1-1&keywords=mountain%2Bbike%2Bpants

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    3. Thanks. I already have these; they were sold under another name by another vendor (or by the same vendor under another name) for US$19.99 on Amazon last fall. They're quite good for the price -- I used them all last cold season -- but the fabric is a bit thin for my taste.

      Note that the vendor I used had a completely unintelligible sizing system, so that I had to rely on the comments to ballpark my size (M) -- which I did, fortunately, accurately.

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    4. Bertin753

      Most of what you see in those old books will have been old trousers, or old bags as they were called, that had been to the tailor and remade into cycle wear. Be patient with your tailor. It is a surprisingly involved job and almost certainly they have not done it before.

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  20. Goodness! I can do, exactly, what your photo illustrates, but no chaffing. So what am I missing? I once wore something so tight it was uncomfortable and I couldn't wait to end the ride and strip myself of those clothes. Never again.

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  21. I do believe the average age of your readers is showing in this comment thread. Young people can look good in anything. I met a couple on a rather grueling climby charity ride once. They were 25, getting married soon, had just finished their master's degrees at UCSD. Interracial and a nice-looking match. She had on a team jersey from the university and he had some kind of logo jersey. I kept up with them for a while. She unzipped her jersey and exposed a sports bra at one point. Mercy.

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  22. Best advertising slogan ever. The ultimate cure for sausaging. For clothing by Vittore Gianni.

    "You're no salami with Gianni."

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  23. I learned years ago that plastic clothes (nylon, rayon, synthetics of any sort) do not work for me. They do not absorb sweat and they smell. I have long used wool for the top, the weight heavier or lighter depending on the season. I use a very light merino undershirt and merino for the top if possible. The top does not have to be cycling specific; I don't need back pockets because I carry a small front bag that takes everything I need. No billboard ads on the top; I am not a sandwich man. The one concession I make are bibshorts, but always worn under a pair of 3/4 length trousers. The best bibshorts I have used are Assos ones; they last forever. The best 3/4s were made by Rapha, called 'fixies', but Rapha has gone racing and they no longer sell them. Endura 'Humvees' are okay, but too low cut at the back. Bicycle Quarterly sell what looks like a good replacement for the Rapha 'fixies'. In the cold wintertime I wear heavy corduroy trousers with built in braces (suspenders) that I bought from a Scottish theatrical costumier called Darcy. They are just the right fit: loose and roomy and the unbelted waist allows easy breathing. They are warm even when wet, and dry out surprisingly quickly. The ankles are secured with velcro cycle 'clips'. For the 3/4s I use long golfing socks, but no diamondback patterns, please. I hope this gives you some ideas. Regards, The Fossil

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  24. I get painful chafing from combining padded shorts with padded saddles. The padding absorbs and holds too much perspiration and the combined padding is uncomfortable. The brand and type didn't matter: Pearl Izumi padded liner with baggies; AeroTech Pro shorts with old style "2D" padding; Baleaf with 3D padding. They just felt like soggy sponges rubbing me raw.

    By August I'd switched to Champion boxer/briefs. Much more comfortable. Good wicking poly tech fabric. Thin as ordinary underwear. No padding needed with my saddles.

    I put the padded shorts away until I can settle on a firmer saddle for longer rides. Last time I wore cycling apparel was 30 years ago when it was Merino wool or nothing, and genuine chamois. Those were comfortable with the hard saddle I had back then. My new-to-me road bike is undergoing hybrid therapy for my own back and neck comfort. For now it wears an old Bell padded saddle, but I'll replace that eventually. Those pricey Pearl Izumi shorts may be useful later.

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