Living the Life of a Moto-Journalist

MotorcycleMagazine-coverEarly last February, I got a text from my newest best friend Steve Lita, editor of Motorcycle Magazine-Rides and Culture asking me if I was available in March to attend a new bike launch. Um, sure. Tell me more.
It turns out that Steve and all of his go-to editors were previously engaged and he needed someone who can both ride and write. I can do that. A few more texts later, I learned that the press launch was for the 2015 BMW S1000RR uber-sportbike and was being held at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) world-class racetrack in Austin, Texas! Be still, my heart!
Since I write the monthly Street Savvy column for Motorcyclist Magazine, I wasn’t sure that Editor-in-Chief, Marc Cook would give his blessings. It took a tense 5 minutes for Marc to return my text giving me the okay! It looked like I was going to finally live my dream of being a motorcycle journalist who gets to ride other peoples’ bikes in cool parts of the world…and get paid to do it!

Living the Life

I’ve been writing safety/skills articles for 15 years for Motorcycle Consumer News as a freelancer, but this job never included riding new bikes in cool places. Like many of you, I always wondered what it was like to live the life of a jet-set moto-journalist. I was about to find out.

Pre-Event Nerves

Even though I have total confidence in my ability to ride, there was a part of me that couldn’t help thinking how much it would suck to either be the slowest guy on the track and/or crash a $20,000 motorcycle in front of the most well-known journalists in the industry.
As a track day instructor, I am often asked to give the newest model a few laps to see what I think, so I have a lot of experience riding other peoples’ bikes. I adapt quickly to new machines and have never had an issue with control. Except one time. I was riding Twisted Throttle’s brand new 2010 S1000 when I tucked the front tire on a cold and slightly damp turn 11 at Loudon. It took me months to shake off that embarrassment and I wasn’t about to let it happen again.
AGVIn the coming weeks, I read up on the S1000 and watched on-bike videos of COTA and waited for brand new leathers, boots and gloves from Alpinestars and an AGV Corsa helmet to arrive. Understandably, gear manufacturers are eager to have their riding gear on the cover and in the inside pages of national magazines whenever possible. Dainese sent me boots and gloves for the event, but didn’t have leathers available, so we went with the full A-Stars setup. Product reviews of the riding gear will appear with the S1000RR review.

The Junket

Apparently, not all press junkets are created equal with some little more than a basic track day or a street ride that includes lunch. The BMW S1000RR junket was going to eclipse these austere events in a big way. Arrangements were made for flight, hotel, meals, and airport drop off and pick up. No, I did not get first-class seats, but I did stay in the posh 4-Seasons hotel in Austin and ate very well.
COTA-ScheduleArriving in Austin, I was greeted by Matthew, my limo driver who handled my luggage. Thankfully, my Ogio gear bag appeared on the conveyor in no time and Matthew drove me to the hotel while I sat dutifully in the back seat where all self-important people sit. A porter carried my bags through the lobby and up to my room. He refused my tip, saying that BMW was taking care of everything. OK, I’m starting to get it.
Often, the marketing people from the bike manufacturer give out nice SWAG bags…not this time, but I did enjoy the gift basket. Yum…beef jerky. Seriously, not having sweet SWAG was fine with me. I was more than happy just to be treated to the venue and first-class treatment. Thanks, BMW!
I wandered around the hotel and then got ready for the welcome cocktail party. I nervously descended the stairs to find about 30 people sitting and standing around an outdoor patio open bar, chatting about this and that. Since many of these men and women are regulars on the bike launch circuit, they know each other well enough to ask about their spouses and kids and get caught up on recently discussed professional matters. At first I feared being the proverbial wallflower, not having much previous contact with these folks. But, a quick glance told me I would fit in just fine, being acquainted with maybe 6 or so others in attendance.

COTA-cocktail
Kevin Wing Photo

An hour or so later, we were escorted to another room where we sat for a presentation highlighting the notable new features for the 2015 RR. Some introductions were made, including the attendance of special guests; Keith and Dylan Code (California Superbike School), Roland Sands (ex-250GP star and custom bike builder), Jesse James (West Coast Choppers), and singer Lyle Lovett who would join us the next day.  Nate Kern, BMW’s S1000RR ambassador-extraordinaire, gave some insight into the significance of certain features that he wanted to make sure we paid attention to.
Dinner was then served in a private dining room. Ari Henning (Motorcyclist) and I had the absolutely delicious Salmon. Unfortunately, Ari had a rough night as his system struggled with the fish.
COTA-present-1
Kevin Wing Photo

After the presentation, the bar was re-opened, but I know better than to consume much alcohol before riding on the track so I went off to bed. I, thankfully, slept remarkably well.

Launch Day

We were instructed to be in the breakfast room early to grab some chow before getting on the bus to the racetrack. The bus driver was stuck in traffic, so we got a late start. After a 30 minute drive we were deposited in the paddock where our gear was moved to a changing area in the garages. The journalists were escorted to a classroom for the marketing/press briefings on the new line of BMW riding gear and another presentation on factory accessories available for the S1000. A fully-kitted RR was on display with over $11,000 worth of goodies.

COTA-present-2
Kevin Wing Photo

We were divided into two groups. Looking around, I could see that I was put in the “slow” group. That was fine with me…and understandable. As a first-time freelancer I’m an unknown quantity to BMW and it meant that I would be one of the faster riders on the track. Besides, it ended up that the guys in the other group were ripping faster than I was willing to go.

Suiting Up

LyleAfter the presentations, we got suited up. This is when things got a bit bizarre. Here I am wrestling to put on a set of brand-spanking new Alpinestars leathers when I glance over to see Lyle Lovett wriggling into his custom “Lone star of Texas” Vanson leathers. “Hey, I know you.” Lyle is world famous and one of my favorite all-time musicians, but today we were just two guys getting ready to ride.
Go-Pro was there loaning out cameras and attaching mounts to the bikes. There was also a drone hovering around with a camera as the first group set out for a session of follow-the-leader behind Nate Kern. All but two journalists had ridden COTA before, so we were mostly in the same boat.

COTA and the S1000RR

This is getting mighty long (for the Internet), so I am splitting this into two parts. Read Part 2 where I will reveal my thoughts on COTA and riding the 199hp 2015 S1000RR.

Final Thoughts

In the end, this was a fairy tale experience. But like most things, there are ups and downs. Listening to the seasoned journos talk about their struggles with travel and time spent away from home, I realized that apparently it’s not all fun and games.
Watch this video interview of my new acquaintance, Jeff Buchanan, talking about what it’s like to ride for a living.

After all was said and done, I had a great time meeting new industry peeps, getting reacquainted with not so new acquaintances and living the life of a real moto-journalist for a couple of days. I hope people enjoy the article (look for it in a mid-summer issue of Motorcycle Magazine-Rides and Culture). I also hope more offers to test bikes happen in the near future. It sure was fun. I’ll be awaiting your next text, Steve.


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Top 16 Off-Road Riding Tips

Fun and challenging!
Gettin’ My Mud On!

I recently returned from an epic dirt riding trip. But, instead of boring you with details about where I went and what I ate, I’m going to share some tips about how I survived the slimy, rocky, ascents and descents of the Rock House section of the Hatfield McCoy trail system in West Virginia.
smallrockhouse copy
Ken, Tony and the guys at Hatfield McCoy
Ken, Tony and the guys at Hatfield McCoy

It all started when a group of us from Tony’s Track Days arrived at the small town of Gilbert, WV to ride up and down some of the slimiest and rockiest terrain I’ve encountered.

Check out the video:

You’ll hear me talking while I slip, slide and bounce along the trails, because I am using Interphone brand Bluetooth communicators with my friend, Tony. I can’t recommend using communicators enough…it makes off road riding even more enjoyable and allows the person in the lead to warn about particularly gnarly hazards. I’m on a Kawasaki KLX250s.


Some hills are just too tough.
Some hills are just too tough.

Slippery, Slimy Mud on hard packed rock.
Slippery, Slimy Mud on hard packed rock.

Why Do That?

To understand some reasons why I ride off-road (and why you should, too), you may want to read the blog article “10 Reasons Why Street Riders Should Ride in the Dirt” . Sure, riding off-road makes anyone a better street rider, but I also do it because it is challenging and fun, fun, fun.
I talk about “riding in the zone” as it pertains to street riding and even track riding, but off-road riding brings the zone experience to a whole new level of alertness.  Any significant lapse in focus could mean careening down a steep slope with the only thing stopping me from a long descent are stands of trees.

Fun and challenging!
Fun and challenging!

Tips for Surviving Mud, Rocks, Hills and Other Off-road Encounters

I’m no off-road riding expert. But, I know enough to share some tips that can help you survive your next off-road riding experience. With no further ado, here they are:

  1. 1. Manage Your Speed: Nothing increases risk more than a too fast speed for your ability and/or the conditions. Keeping your throttle hand in check is fairly easy to do, but managing speed on a steep, muddy downhill trail is tough. The trick is to see the problem well before you get to it and slow down to a crawl so you aren’t trying to scrub off speed where gravity and almost zero traction create the equivalent of a slip and slide.
  2. 2. Keep Your Eyes Up: We look down when we are scared or tired. The problem is that as soon as you look down, you’re unable to deal with the terrain that is suddenly under your front wheel. This problem compounds until you are so far behind what’s going on underneath you that you get more scared, look down more and eventually crash. This pertains to most athletic activities, including street riding.
  3. 3. Use Momentum: When traction is limited, you must rely more on momentum. This means keeping your eyes up to see what’s coming and getting on the gas before you are on a surface that has little grip.
  4. 4. Believe You Can Do it: If you hesitate, you will likely not make it up that steep incline. So, go for it! That said, avoid terrain that is over your head.
  5. 5. Stand Up, Sit Down: It’s nearly impossible to ride an off-road bike well if you aren’t good at riding while standing. It’s also important to know when it’s best to stand and when to sit. In general, stand for any significant bumps so your legs absorb the impacts and sit for corners, especially corners with berms so you can load the rear tire for the drive out.
  6. 6. Find the Center: Whether sitting or standing, you must find the spot where your body’s mass is located for optimum maneuverability and fluid control. This means sitting forward on the seat and standing so your belly is over the steering stem.
  7. 7. Bent Arms: The bike is going to move up, down, left and right at great frequency. Yet, you must hold onto the handlebars and operate the controls while the bike is jerking around. Bent arms allow the bike to move as necessary and for your hands to still control the throttle and brake with precision.
  8. 8. Counter-lean: This is something street riders have a hard time with when they first start dirt-riding. If you lean with the bike (or low and inside) then the bike will slip out from under you. The bike must lean to turn, but if you stay on top of the bike, your weight keeps the load pressing vertically to allow the tires to grip the terrain.
  9. 9. Forget the Clutch: Forget using the clutch for upshifts. There is usually no time to go for the clutch lever when you’re accelerating out of one rocky, muddy mess into another one.
  10. 10. Use the Clutch: On the other hand, you want to use the clutch to control drive as much as possible. By slipping the clutch you can stay in a taller gear to avoid excessive shifting and control your speed with greater precision.
  11. 11. Use the Rear Brake: On muddy terrain, you’ll rely heavily on the rear brake. Skidding the rear tire is not usually a big deal, but skidding the front will quickly toss you on your head.
  12. 12. Use the Front Brake: Yeah, I know what I just said, but when there is traction, you can (and should) use both the front and rear brakes when descending hills. This may sound tricky, and it is. But, sometimes you need all the slowing power available, just learn to apply the front brake carefully.
  13. 13. Learn to Wheelie and Jump: Not so you can be a squid, but so you can get over fallen trees, big rocks and to jump whoops like Pastrana. If you can’t wheelie, then at least learn to loft or bunny-hop over obstacles.
  14. 14. Steer with the Rear: When you don’t have a lot of grip, trying to steer with the front tire is a bad idea. Instead, get the bike turned in the general direction, but get on the gas to prevent a front tire washout.
  15. 15. Make sure Your Bike is Ready: It sucks to be stranded in the woods.
  16. 16. Take Breaks: Off-road riding uses a lot of physical and mental energy. If you get tired, you will start looking down and your timing will become imprecise. Before you know it, you’re on the ground.

Okay. It’s your turn. Please use the comments area below to share your favorite tips for riding rugged and muddy off-road terrain.


 

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Dual Sport Motorcycling: Discovering My Little Town

I ain't Scared. Bring it on!
I ain’t Scared. Bring it on!

I’ve lived in my small New England town for over 20 years. It’s a town that is nestled on the eastern foothills of the Berkshires. Ashfield, Massachusetts is pretty large when measured in square miles, but is quite small when you are counting human beings. In those twenty years, I have driven and ridden most of the roads that Ashfield claims ownership to. One reason I moved to this hamlet from the brick and concrete of Olde Boston Towne was for the awesome motorcycling roads.
It’s true, my town, and the immediate towns that border the place I call home, can brag to have some of the best motorcycling roads in the Commonwealth. Every weekend I can swing by the local gas station, Lakehouse Restaurant or Elmer’s Country Store and see license plates from surrounding states mounted on all types of bikes. It’s that kind of place.

Pavement is Great, But Don’t Forget the Dirt

While Ashfield is well-know to savvy riders for its awesome twisty tarmac and light traffic, only those riders who dare to explore the dirty roads of Ashfield and vicinity truly discover the soul of this small Massachusetts hilltown. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that in my two decades living in Ashfield, I have only explored a tiny bit of what is available for a dual-sport rider to see and experience. It’s not that I haven’t had a machine to do the job. My 2000 Suzuki DRz400 is more than capable of handling the dirt (or mud) roads that connect remote parts of town to the civilization of Main Street, Rt 116 and 112 that are the lifelines to the Pioneer Valley.

The definition of bucolic.
The definition of bucolic.

These dirt roads aren’t hard to find. However, it does take a bit more time and a certain commitment to make the turn onto one of the many unpaved roads. I’m always rewarded with epic views, tree-lined paths, and bucolic farmscapes. Look for roads marked by green hand-carved signs with names like “Bug Hill Road”, “Lilliput Road”, and “Brier Hill Road” for an adventure and journey into New England’s past.
A short excursion off the pavement.
A short excursion off the pavement rewards me with nice vistas.

But Wait, There’s More!

The roads I’ve talked about so far are doable by most street bikes, so they are not exactly challenging for the really adventurous dual-sporter. For those wanting more than smooth dirt roads, there are plenty of logging roads, snowmobile trails and even single-track nearby. Recently, I’ve been exploring the un-maintained roads through the Hawley State Forest. These are public ways that once used to be busy thoroughfares, but are now grown in and largely forgotten.
Some of the off-road routes are private, and only permitted to be used by snowmobiles, but I try not to let that stop me. A quiet exhaust and a brief visit usually offends no-one. Loud pipes and disregard for private property will ruin it for all of us, so if you can’t play nice, please stay away.

New Bike Says “Let’s Play”

Three deer came by for a closer look at the Green KLX.
Three deer came by for a closer look at the Green KLX.

A lot of my riding involves big street bikes that I take all over the East Coast. These trips are epic and I will never stop doing them, but sometimes I just want to play. I recently bought a very playful Kawasaki KLX250s to replace my trusty DRz. I decided to buy the KLX because the Suzuki is set up to be more of a serious off-road bike than a playbike. The DRz is a bit of a brute; it’s tall, and hard-edged. The KLX, on the other hand, is unintimidating, playful and begs to be ridden.

Rekindled Passion

I’ve been riding motorcycles of all kinds for over 40 years. As is often the case, the passion and exuberance of my youth has softened significantly so that there is a danger of riding motorcycles to become same-old, same-old. I’m happy to report that the new bike has sparked the old passion for simple exploration. With the addition of the little KLX in my garage, my desire to simply jump on the bike and explore is rekindled. Just in time for the new riding season.
How do you keep the love alive with your relationship with motorcycling? Dual-sport? Dirt or trial riding? Racing? What? Share your thoughts below.

Elmer's Store. A must visit destination.
Elmer’s Store. A must visit destination.

Some Ashfield Attractions:

  • Ashfield Lakehouse: A really popular biker stop. Great food!
  • Elmer’s Store: Best pancakes around. Step back in time! A popular breakfast place to start a ride and is the meeting spot for the Riding in the Zone Personal Training Tours.
  • South Face Farm: A genuine Sugar Shack that serves pancake breakfasts during the sugaring season (that’s Spring time for you city folks).
  • Ashfield Lake: A quiet lake with wildlife galore. Loud pipes scare the wildlife!
  • Double-Edge Theater: A world-class theater that specializes in outdoor performances.

South Face Farm
South Face Farm


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Tony and Ken's Barber Experience- UPDATED

Tony from Tony’s Track Days and I are leaving for the southern state of Alabama to take in the beauty (and warmth?) of the Barber Motorsports Park and absorb decades of motorcycle history at the Barber Museum. We’ll be riding our motorcycles with X-Act on Saturday and Sunday. Reports to follow. In the meantime, enjoy this video with Ben Spies and Colin Edwards. I’m afraid our trip…I mean Mancation… may be scarily similar to theirs:

Track Day Prep

Tony and I are riding with X-Act Motorsports and they, like many track day organizations, require glycol anti-freeze/coolant to be removed and replaced with distilled water or one of their approved substances. Those of you who ride with TTD know that we don’t require customers to drain their coolant. This is because in the many years that we’ve been running track days, we rarely ever have much trouble with coolant spills. Yes, occasionally some dribbles out of the radiator overflow from a gravity-challenged bike, but it’s never been a big problem. But, it sure can be a hindrance for regular street motorcycle riders to remove their coolant.
And now I’m reminded of just what a pain it is to do. I’m mechanically inclined, so this chore is well within my abiities. But, still… it’s messy and time-consuming when I could be doing something much more productive like polishing my wheels.

The Bull dog ready for some barber action.
The Bull Dog ready for some Barber action.

Transforming the Street Triple from street duty to track bull dog is not a big deal. (I decided that it looks like a bull dog) Although, I discovered that Triumph makes silly decisions that make it unnecessarily difficult to take street stuff off. One poor decision was to put the front turn signal connectors underneath the fuel tank! WTF? To raise the tank, I have to remove the Scott’s damper, so I’ll be putting connectors where Triumph should have put them in the first place: between the tank and the signal housing so the directionals can be removed in seconds, not tens of minutes.
X-Act also wants us to zip tie our sidestand up, which TPM requires, too. Again, we at TTD never found this to be an issue, but it’s a small thing to do. I’ll just make the zip-tie loose enough to slip off so I can use the stand in the paddock. No, we aren’t bringing paddock stands…light is right on this trip.

Gear packing

So, the bike is ready. Next on my list is packing my riding gear. I have one of those really cool Ogio gear bags on wheels, but Tony tells me he has matching plastic bins that fit perfectly in the back of his truck, so I may have to leave the sexy Ogio at home.
I keep all my track stuff in one place, so gathering it up was easy. I kept my tattered Vanson leathers aside until I found out whether my TTD Heroic leathers would be arriving in time for the trip. I heard from Todd today and he says that the leathers must have been shipped by camel, so they won’t be at my house before I leave. He says they will be at the hotel in Birmingham when we arrive. We shall see.
If they do arrive, then Tony and I will either look like we intended our matching black and yellow TTD leathers to look…like team colors. But there is a slight risk that we could be mistaken for advocates of same sex marriage (I don’t know Tony’s politics on this matter, but I’m pro, BTW). We’ll see how the southern boys react. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Brrrrr?

Wait, I thought Alabama was supposed to be warm, or at least warm-ish. But, the extended forecast says 45 degrees on Sunday. Is this some cruel joke? Well, I’m not laughing.
Now, we hearty New Englanders can handle the cold temps, it’s just that we prefer temperatures that don’t conspire to make our tires Flintstone-hard. What I can count on is the warmth of good friends hanging around the tire warmers and fighting over Wendy Butler’s cookies.

The Trip Begins

I meet Tony at his house on Wednesday, Nov. 20th at 9:00 AM. We’ll load the bikes and hit the road. Anyone know where there is a key fob store near Rt 84?
We made it to Virginia and will do the rest of the trip tomorrow. All is well so far. Tony hasn’t farted once, at least he denied doing it, but I don’t buy his claim that Renee spilled baked beans in the truck last week. I didn’t argue.
So, a trip to Walmart scored us a tarp, extension cord and tarp tie downs. So, now the bikes are tucked in for the night with the ceramic heater I brought turned on high to guarantee that our radiator water won’t freeze.

We Have Arrived

Well, 19 hours of driving later, we pulled into the hotel located just down the road from the racetrack. we’ll be meeting with the other Northerners for dinner and then we’ll hit the museum tomorrow. Look for lots of photos of the museum in the next couple days.

The Barber Motorcycle Museum

I’ll let the gallery speak for itself.

First Day on the Barber Track

We expected cold and possibly rainy conditions, but the weather Gods looked favorably on us and gave us dry and not too cold temps (for us New Englanders). We were in the 40s in the morning, with 50s in the afternoon. Getting heat and keeping it in the tires was a challenge, but the grip was fine for the pace we were running as we learned the track.
So, what is the track like and was it worth driving 20 hours to get to experience its awesomeness. In one word, yes. It’s a combination of fast, flowing corners with some tight stuff thrown in. The biggest challenge was to figure out where the heck I was on the track. There are a lot of blind corners, many hidden by hilltops. I would be approaching a hill, not remembering what was on the other side. Once I crested the hill, I would say “oh yeah” and then get on the gas.
By the last morning session, I was starting to not be so lost and was picking up the pace. The afternoon sessions went very well, except for the riders who didn’t understand the concept of taking a couple of laps to get some heat int he tires before wicking it up. That session was a wash with two red flags almost as soon as the session started and again at the restart. Oh well.

Up and Down, Left and Right

The Barber track is a medium-fast, flowing roller coaster of a track. It was a challenge to learn, but once I figured out where I was on the track, things went well. One problem was the cold temperatures. Saturday was in the low 50s and wasn’t bad, but it was 30 degrees when we arrived on Sunday.
We decided to give the track and the air a chance to get a bit warmer before we rolled. After lunch, we went out and proceeded to lay down some respectable laps. I did not have tire warmers, which would have made the first few laps less stressful, but the tires did eventually warm enough for fast, knee-down cornering.
Here are some photos from the weekend. Thanks to Raul Jerez / Highside Photo.

See videos of the Barber Track day HERE.


Since this will be our first time at Barber, we will be putting our “Learning New Tracks” skills to use.  I did write an article on learning new tracks last year for the TTD website, but do any of you have tips for us that you find helpful?

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A Family who Rides Together…

The tribe
The tribe

My family is full of motorcycle riders, including my wife, Caroline and daughter, Jeannine. Enter another member of the family in the form of Matt, Jeannine’s boyfriend, who rides a 2008 Yamaha R6s and you’ve got a rolling tribe.
My family didn’t start out as motorcyclists. I believe it was my almost crazy obsession with the two-wheeled sport of motorcycling that caused my otherwise sensible wife, Caroline, to take the MSF course in 1995 and trust me to provide her with the constant flow of  knowledge necessary to survive riding a machine that seems to conspire at every moment to toss you to the ground. A few years later she became a MSF instructor.  (I have been an instructor since 1995).

Along came our lovely daughter, Jeannine, who probably assumed every kid’s mom and dad rode motorcycles. After all, there have been stacks of magazines covering every flat surface in the house since she was a baby.

Well, Jeannine is no longer a baby (but she’s still my little girl), and she is an accomplished rider in her own right. She works for Twisted Throttle, has just returned from a week long dual-sort trip through Alaska, and has become accomplished enough of a racetrack rider that I hired her as a control rider for Tony’s Track Days. Proud, this father is.

Now, she brings a new member to the family. Matt and Jeannine’s first date was a ride, he on his R6 and her on her ZX6R. Love at first sight. I discovered that Matt is a good guy (once I put the shotgun down and gave him a chance). I shouldn’t have worried; Jeannine makes good choices.

Caroline has let riding fade a bit more into the background since her many hobbies take her time and energy. However, there is always energy for our annual family motorcycle ride.
 


This year we went back to one of our favorite places on earth: The Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia and North Carolina. We love the scenery, winding roads, the people and Will Beers, the owner of Willville Motorcycle Camp. Will is one of us…a guy who decided that he wanted to surround himself with mountain beauty and motorcycle riders who share his passion for the sport.

Enjoy the gallery of photos from our 2013 trip to the BRP and stay tuned for more posts about my motorcycling family.

 


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