Cycle Anti-Chic: The Bike Helmet as an Accessory Platform

To paraphrase Jesus:

The tasteless you will always have with you, but you will not always have Mikael.

I wear a helmet almost every time I bike. I also enjoy provoking the anti-helmet trolls. These are people who believe that bike helmets promote and perpetuate an exaggerated perception of the dangers of cycling, which only serves to deter people from taking up the activity.

They pounce on every pro-helmet page on the Web where it is possible to leave a comment. And when pro-helmet pages do not allow comments, they print the pages out and scrawl “Culture Of Fear” across the paper with a red sharpie pen. Mikael Colville-Andersen is their messiah. (Okay, maybe not messiah. I’m trying to tie in the Biblical quote with which I began this piece. Luminary? Does that work?)

But the reality is, I’m one of them — minus the castigating of our deluded inferiors. Cycling without a helmet is healthier than not cycling at all. Cycling without a helmet is less dangerous than many things that people routinely do without any sense of danger — walking, climbing stairs, riding/driving a car, playing tennis, etc.

Previously, I gave hair-obsessed, would-be cyclists my blessings to bike without a helmet if that’s all that’s holding them back.

Mikael Colville-Andersen’s now-famous TED speech video helped to change my thinking about helmets. If you are unfamiliar with the debate over the value of helmets, that video is a great place to begin.

Another of Colville-Andersen’s contributions to cycling is the popularization of Cycle Chic, which simply means cycling in everyday clothes — better yet: fashionable clothes. This blog was rated last year as one of the top 50 blogs “Celebrating the ‘Cycle Chic’ Movement.”

And this is me:

Ted's Overloaded Helmet
My co-workers have started calling me "Cyborg"

Yes, there’s a ridiculous amount of crap mounted to my helmet. No, this is not how I roll — usually. But lately I’ve been trying to address a backlog of products I’m supposed to review. Four or five of those products are poking off my head in the photos above. (So you can expect four or five reviews featuring that image in the near future. I’ve already reviewed the Fire Eye Helmet Light.)

There are people who wouldn’t be seen in this getup. I’m okay with it. I’m part of the problem.

As car culture became pervasive in our society (American society in particular) and driving cars increasingly became what “regular people” did, those who chose to cycle began to include a higher ratio of the clueless, the indifferent, the nonconformist — the tasteless. Some cyclists will always be drawn from those in society who don’t know or care whether they are going against the grain of what conventional people do — as well as those who deliberately choose to go against the grain. Cycle Chicsters and the anti-helmet Web vigilantes want to change that ratio, and I’m cheering them on. Whether they want me to or not.

I’m not so much anti-chic as I am among the indifferent. My fashion sense is about as good off bike as it is on. I understand that in the eyes of some, I’d be a more effective advocate for cycling if I’d dress fashionably and didn’t wear a helmet. They’re probably right. But it ain’t gonna happen.

Edmund Bergler, a Freudian psychoanalyst, said,

Conspicuous tastelessness in dress is mostly an unconscious pseudoaggressive and defensive attack on the enshrined mother image.

I’m not sure what that means. But still, my dressing fashionably ain’t gonna happen.

I like wearing a helmet — I just don’t imagine for a second that it makes my skull and the tasteless brain within much safer than they would be without it. Particularly in a close encounter with a car, I don’t expect the helmet would provide more than a marginal benefit.

The bike helmet makes a great accessory platform, and I’ll be talking about it in forthcoming posts. This is meant as a heads-up to my helmet-hating friends that I’ll be publicly loving the helmet for awhile now. Like you, I envision a future where “normal people” ride bikes in their everyday clothes. In my vision, the ratio of schlumps to fashionistas on bikes will roughly mirror society in general. And some of the schlumps, like me, will be wearing helmets.

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32 thoughts on “Cycle Anti-Chic: The Bike Helmet as an Accessory Platform”

  1. My name is Mikael and I endorse this blog post.

  2. Ted – can you confirm the rumors that you are working on a new site, to be known as “Flagstaff Cycle Geek”

  3. Dr. M says:

    What is this? High school? Someone else’s definition of chic is going to dictate what I wear on my bicycle? I don’t think so and last time I checked the Netherlands was not even on the radar for haute couture fashion.

    I wear a helmet. My choice, my head. I even have a CityZen urban cycling helmet that is covered in red plaid cloth. I’ve been told by more than a few fashion designers that I “rock that helmet”. Even if I didn’t, I would still wear it because it keeps my head warm and protects my noggin from the low beams in the bike shed. So my advice to the cycle chic crowd? Mine your own business.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Dr. M: Far be it for me to speak for the Cycle Chic movement, but I think you misunderstand. If I were to characterize the meta-message of Cycle Chic, it would be this:

      Hey Normal People! Cycling is safe, and not just for kids, adrenalin junkies, Spandex addicts, and fashion disasters like Ted Johnson. Look! Beautiful people are doing it.

      So I don’t think they want to dictate what anyone wears so much as they want to project an alternative image of cycling that will appeal to people who think cycling is not for people like themselves.

      The anti-helmet trolls with their assholery undermine that positive message at least as much as fashion schlumps like myself.

  4. Dave Krentz says:

    I come at this the same way as Dr. M. Not at all concerned with fashion, I wear what works for me, which means I ride dressed like Rob Ford’s nightmare. Sidi mountain bike shoes, Specialized roadie helmet and a good six feet of spandex in between.

    My gear reflects my roadie past and my mountain biker present. It also makes me question the belief that this alienates “real people” and scares them off. People seem to find me more approachable, not less, and start conversations about cycling and how much they love it too. That’s never happened when I’ve been decked out in business casual, or jeans and a T-shirt — even cycling-themed T-shirts, the only kind I wear.

    Plus, if it turns out I’m wrong, those clipless pedals will make for a quick getaway from the angry, pitchfork-wielding mob!

  5. Tim Sherman says:

    To paraphrase God: Let your bicycle helmet light shine out of the darkness.

    I have a J&G rain cover with a Cateye light on my helmet. I can be seen from news choppers in the air.

    I’m the anti-chic cyclist near the end of this news story.

    Tim Sherman

    Do you ever get in a car and feel strangely wrong for a moment and then realize it is because you are not wearing a bicycle helmet? I do.

  6. Paul A. says:

    This debate is always interesting to me. I’ve had two crashes in the past ten years that were due to equipment failure. My seat post bolt cracked once and my crank arm snapped going up a steep hill. I was going no more than 12 miles per hour either time. Both bikes were well maintained. They were both considered to be fluke failures by the manufacturer. Both accidents resulted in hitting my head on the pavement. The first resulted in a shattered and dislocated ankle (pins and plate) and would have resulted in significant trauma to the head. The second resulted in a broken arm and would likely have killed me had I been without a helmet. Because I was wearing a good helmet both times I have continued to live, love, work, and ride. I suspect the guys who worry about cycling appearing dangerous or worry about their hair looking bad typically haven’t had such experiences. Once you do and are lucky enough to walk away grateful for a cracked helmet instead of being dead or brain damaged, this discussion seems pretty silly. Of course, we all get to decide for ourselves. But with folks like Mikael making an reasoned argument for riding helmetless, I feel compelled to share a decidedly different, if less eloquent perspective so the easily swayed have another opinion to consider.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Paul: Thanks for your comment. In spite of everything I wrote above, I also realize that a helmet would have value — possibly lifesaving value — in the statistically improbable event that I were to have an accident like either of the two you had. I’ve had some bad spills on bikes and have never hit my head or helmet.

      I’m hoping not to have a skirmish in the helmet debate here. In fact, I’m hoping to keep the trolls at bay so that I can discuss some helmet-mounted accessories without that predictable and irritating sideshow. But one of the annoying things that the helmet-haters frequently (and correctly) point out is how useless a helmet is against the force and speed of a car — as though the only type of bike accident involves a car.

      Bike helmets provide a false sense of security until it’s not false. In most bike accidents the helmet is of no consequence either because the cyclist’s head doesn’t take a blow, or because the cyclist dies and the helmet offered insufficient protection. Then there’s that small percentage of accidents where a helmet made all the difference — such as the accidents you were in.

      I guess I see both sides, and the two things that I find egregious are (1) helmets being promoted as essential to everyday utilitarian cycling, perpetuating the myth that cycling is inherently dangerous, and (2) jerks who won’t let a person decide for themselves — even irrationally — whether to use a helmet.

  7. Nathan Fenchak says:

    I too wear a helmet, basically for that fringe benefit of a helmet in a crash where I do hit my head, but it is not severe enough to kill me outright.

    I do this because, two summers ago I biked to work at a little outdoor evening concert in Fort Collins CO, and didn’t bring a helmet, or a light. I called my wife and asked her to drop off my light on her way to work. She brought the light, and the helmet that I had forgotten.

    After the show I packed up the gear, threw my bike in the van with the gear, and drove the van over to my boss’s workshop.
    Obviously, I found a speedbump and flew right over my handlebars on the way home, knocking the back of my head against the pavement. It wasn’t a terrible crash. It was actually pretty funny after the fact because I was swearing up a storm as soon as I hit the ground, and looked up to see a pretty big group of children and their parents staring at me. I got lucky, and if not for the helmet, hitting my head could have been much worse.

    It’s a personal choice, but the fringe benefit of just that type of accident makes it worth it to me to wear a helmet. I don’t really care what choice anyone else makes, or care about looking stylish.

  8. BluesCat says:

    I ride a recumbent, and cannot swivel my head around (a la Linda Blair in The Exorcist) to look behind me. So, the REAL reason I wear a helmet is to have a rear-view mirror.

    I think it is probably safer, too, and sets a good example for the children (“Look, Kids! Being geeky is COOL!”), and I always put on my helmet before riding like I always put on a belt before heading out the front door.

    I’ve seen some foxy girls riding cruisers, and have commented to myself “Wow, does she ever look GOOD without a helmet!” So, I guess maybe my prurient interest trumps my safety interest.

  9. Charles Legrey says:

    To me, wearing a helmet is a no brainer… the helmet protects the skull which protects the brain. I had a few mean crashes with my bike and I wouldn’t be typing this if I hadn’t protected my head when it hit the pavement.

  10. Dr. M:
    I usually don’t wear a helmit because I have determined that I look goofy in them and they mess up my hair, an important factor for me.

    I don’t care if other cyclists wear them or not; I simply don’t care to listen to a lecture from other people (often those who never get on a bike)about the dangers of cycling and how I ineed a helmet to be safe. I particularly don’t care to hear another of the smug helmet-headed zip past me on their bikes and shout to me that I should be wearing one too. I just wish they’d shut up and stop being so tiresomely self-righteous. In the unlikely event I ever decide to go ride desert trails in Sedona I will wear a helmet but until then, it probably won’t happen.

  11. Blues, I’ve been told that I should wear a helmet to set an example for children but, as I don’t have any, I can’t be bothered.

    I happily play property taxes to fund the education of other people’s children though, so it’s not like I hate kids.

  12. BluesCat says:

    Karen – Yeah, I used to be much more militant about helmet use, especially when Liam Neeson’s beautiful wife, Natasha Richardson, died as a result of a brain injury sustained when her helmet-less head hit the hard, packed snow at a ski resort.

    I guess I’ve sort of (shudder) mellowed. If you’re on a carbon fiber road bike, averaging over 20 mph as you zip along, then I think a helmet should be an indispensable accessory. But if you’re a cute gal in a summer dress, pedaling your Dutch-style bike along — to the accompaniment of the whistles of the construction workers — at speed even I could run at, well, then I think a helmet might be overdoing it; sorta like Mrs. Cat having to put on a 5-point racing harness in her Honda just to drive over to Paradise Bakery for some bagels and coffee.

  13. Tim Sherman says:

    I feel like more of a target when I ride my utility bicycle to the grocery store. The grocery parking lot is where I need the helmet most. The check out clerk is confused by my bike bags, but never asks me if I need help out to the car when I have a helmet on. It isn’t pretty but my hair is dry and I don’t need paper or plastic.

  14. Paul A. says:

    One thing I’ve always valued about your site, Ted is that the commentary is almost always constructive and thoughtful. Thanks to everyone – helmeted and non – for the thoughtful responses about helmet use.

    I love a spirited debate but quickly grow weary of sites where everyone rips each other over even the most insignificant differences.

    Keep up the good work. I appreciate what you bring to this great emerging bike culture we’re lucky enough to be forging together across the country.

    Paul A. – Minneapolis

  15. Nick says:

    I firstly want to say that I truly love the site and that it inspired me to start bike commuting. I now have nearly a year under my belt and am commuting about a hundred miles a week. However, the kind of comments stated in this argument utterly baffle me. For instance, you wrote “I’ve had some bad spills on bikes and have never hit my head or helmet.” and “and the two things that I find egregious are (1) helmets being promoted as essential to everyday utilitarian cycling, perpetuating the myth that cycling is inherently dangerous, and (2) jerks who won’t let a person decide for themselves — even irrationally — whether to use a helmet.”

    Sir, with the utmost due respect, unless you are living in some sort of cycling utopia in which drivers are constantly vigilant, every person in your community hopping on their commuter has unparalleled ability to concentrate and maintain superb balance regardless of unforeseen obstacles, the roads and trails are perfectly and meticulously maintained and the elements never provide precipitation that would possibly create hazardous riding conditions then your thesis is patently false, whether you choose to acknowledge that fact or not. There will ALWAYS be an inherent danger in pedaling our bikes, even at a modest speed, due to the nature of the sport. But that is why we all love to do it. The feeling of quiet freedom that comes from coasting down trails and bike lanes, knowing that we aren’t stuck in grid locked traffic.

    Secondly, I am thrilled that you haven’t your head during any fall from your commuter. However, I would caution you to consider yourself lucky and not an outlier that proves helmets are unnecessary. There is absolutely nothing to say that the next time you fall, regardless as to its cause, that you won’t hit your head.

    Lastly, I understand the desire to not have people tell you whether or not you should wear a helmet. However, calling people “jerks” who posit that wearing a helmet is beneficial and saying you find their behavior egregious, smacks of a silly “woe is me” teenage mentality that I think you were trying to disassociate yourself from in your above argument. Never the less, I truly believe that one of the greatest strengths of our society is our ability to indulge in whatever we feel will bring us our greatest pleasure regardless as to whether or not it goes against accepted social tropes. Hell, I smoked for years and still enjoy a tall glass of whiskey. I know they both are terrible for me but I loved every minute. Never the less, when I decided to start commuting I became more health conscious, quit smoking and severely cut back my alcohol intake. Not because I didn’t adore my Camel Lights and Jim Beam, or because I felt like somebody was imposing their will on me, but because I knew that it would have positive health affects…just like wearing a helmet while biking. Are there people that smoke and drink for their entire life without suffering adverse health conditions, of course. Can you bike your whole life without a helmet, and never suffer a traumatic brain injury as a result of a crash…you betcha. Would you bet your life that you fall into those categories? So lets give up the ghost of pretending this is about free speech or making a stand. It’s about safety versus, “does my hair look awesome?” I guess I would challenge people to ask themselves, “Do I ride a bike because I love the freedom, monetary and health benefits it provides…or because I really wish I looked like a guy in the Urban Outfitters catalog?”

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Nick: The comment to which you are responding was written and posted rather hastily while the battery of my laptop warning me of imminent shutdown. Maybe I could have been clearer.

      The people who I am calling “jerks” are the anti-helmet trolls — the ones who chastise any helmet wearer as a victim of the “culture of fear;” an unknowing serf to global conspiracy to suppress cycling. I’ve read some crazy stuff by these folks. They are, in my opinion, jerks.

      It gives me great satisfaction to read that this site helped motivate you to bike commute.

  16. robb says:

    that’s the loudest cognative dissonance I’ve ever heard.

    I’ve had three accidents in the last 20k miles of riding:

    I was cut off by a panel truck in chinatown and ended up ricocheting between it and an SUV on my way down. My Giro Atmos helmet was destroyed by the 2-4 impacts between the trucks on the way down, where I hit my head on the ground. I was bruised but fine.

    I was cut off by a pickup truck on Broadway and hit a curb in a complicated way. The first part of me to hit the ground (at >20mph) was my head. I broke a finger and had serious cuts, but my head was absolutely fine.

    I slid on ice on the Manhattan Bridge and went down hard with my hands tangled up in my bars. My eyebrow would have been the first thing to hit the cast-iron fence on the side of the bridge. My helmet caught the impact and saved me from serious injury.


    When I was 15 I had an accident at 25mph where my crank failed. I smarshed my forehead against the brake assembly on my bars, lacerating my face and my ear. I t-boned and the fork failed, too, and I hit the ground head first so hard that I was concussed to the point of forgetting my name for an hour. I lost a tremendous amount of blood from my head and had to be transfused during the HIV blood supply scare, but couldn’t be because I couldn’t give consent and I didn’t know who I was. I nearly died, had over 400 stitches, etc. If you looked at the scar you’d agree that there is a 90% chance that a helmet would have protected me. I’m just glad I didn’t suffer permanent head trauma. I have a friend who has been living with that for 25 years now and it is a horror.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Cognitive dissonance? I think I know what that means, but I’ll look it up to be sure…

      Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.

      Yep. That’s what I thought it meant.

      Wherever the tiresome helmet debate is ignited — and it’s so pitifully easy to ignite it — people like you and Paul arrive with personal stories of how helmets saved them from death or more serious injury. I can’t possibly discount your stories. How can you not be happy to have survived these accidents, and how can I not be happy for you? I am. And I would never discourage you or anyone from wearing a helmet. Neither would I ever criticize an adult for not wearing a helmet for everyday cycling.

      Your experiences, however, are anecdotal, not statistical. And rational risk assessment ought to be based at least partially on statistics.

      The cognitive dissonance that I see is when people understand the statistical safety of cycling and continue to wear a helmet, however they also continue to engage in much riskier activities without safety equipment.

      Absolutely: It is inconsistent for me to wear a helmet for cycling (which I do) while I haven’t installed an elevator or stair-lift in my two-story home — or taken similar precautions against all other lifestyle risks which have a statistical occurrence equal to or greater than a head injury from cycling.

      My message to the anti-helmet trolls is this: I understand your case. Shut up now and allow me this contradiction.

  17. Tim K - La Crosse says:

    Yawn…… Helmet Nazis, anti-helmet Nazis, please just give it a rest and mind your own business. As for me I will ride my bike any damn way I please, sometimes with a helmet and sometimes without. This debate is so petty and inconsequential that the very debate itself is hurting bicycling. Give it a rest, ride your bike and leave others alone.

  18. Paul G says:

    Just curious, I haven’t been too involved in these debates but do you think that statistics don’t capture the helmet related crashes because the person that crashed or medics didn’t report an injury because they weren’t seriously hurt, so they just went home, because they had a helmet on?

  19. Erik Griswold says:

    Wear a helmet or don’t. But please don’t make it mandatory so that if I forget to bring one or if I lose one or if it is stolen…

    I can still get home.

    And I can use a share-bike on the spur of the moment.

    And my neighbor, who isn’t quite sure about all this bike stuff can go around the block on mine without earning a visit from the local constabulary (I think they have better things to do with their time!).

    We allow risks in society…you don’t need a car seat for your kids if you take a taxi. What Mikael (PBUH) has shown us all is that there is a way to encourage cycling through infrastructure and through culture.

  20. Crazy Dictator of the World says:

    Ok folks, after reviewing your various proposals, I’ve come up with my plan.

    All people in the world will be required under penalty of death to wear full face helmets and body armor at all times except when they are in bed (at which time they will be required to wear full body condoms).

    However, for 4 years from the age of 18 to 22, all humanoids can never wear any body protection, including clothing, and will be required to ingest a frothy hallucinogenic, alcoholic, ecstasy inducing drink at least 5 times a week. We are working on the recipe now. It will come in 4 flavors including lime.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      So under your plan college will be about the same as it is now.

  21. Brian says:

    To Paul A. and others in the “you’ve never hit your head, have you?” crowd —

    When I was in my early twenties, and a little bit stupider than I am now, I did indeed fall off my bike and break my helmet. Of course, I was trying to do a wheelie on a loaded touring bike, on a gravel path. Not smart.

    A few years later — in my late twenties — I was going fast on a university campus path, in the dark, on an unfamiliar bike, hit a bump, fell and broke both bones of one lower leg. Nine years later, I still have a titanium rod inside the tibia, from my knee to my ankle. Didn’t hit my head, but invasive surgery, five days in the hospital, and four months on crutches weren’t so fantastic.

    Then, I actually learned how to ride safely. I haven’t fallen since, in eight years of daily commuting and mostly-car-free existence. Most of the time, I don’t wear a helmet. I’m not too concerned about falling any more, because I don’t ride fast and I know what to look out for. In short, I grew up and stopped acting like an idiot.

    The only times I do wear a helmet are 1) when I have to go out onto the fast-multilane-U.S.-suburban-sprawl arterials. I try to avoid riding there, but if I do, then I feel like i need to signal to the drivers around me that I’m a serious road user and I know what I’m doing. The helmet will do that. Or 2), when it’s cold. A helmet over a wool cap keeps me pretty warm. Otherwise, naah, no need for it, and I’d rather show people that you can ride normally and safely in the central parts of most American cities.

  22. Mike says:

    Believe in jesus, believe in helmets. Be afraid, be very afraid.

  23. roc_phd says:

    I’m in the “helmet-saved-my-head” from a freak accident category, and it’s impossible not to cringe at the helmet-less I see, especially when they are screaming through stop signs and down hills at 25 mph. (College campus….) But I agree that I’m probably a statistical anomaly. (Though every biker I met with my elbows and face all taped up seemed to know and relate to exactly what happened.) It’s just that the cost of that accident would have been so much higher without the helmet; you hate to think of anyone else paying that price for a hairdo.

    I’m pregnant right now and unfortunately haven’t been able to keep biking despite my efforts. But I love your blog and others related to it and look forward to getting junior into some jerry-rigged car-seat-trailer-thing asap. (I know, that’s another post!) And eventually, into his own little helmet.

  24. John Delphia 3rd says:

    I wear a helmet but have to directly tell my hind-brain that it isn’t there protecting me – because I shouldn’t have a hint of cockyness in me when going against 2000+Lbs of metal at speed. The reason I like wearing it has to do with other things that happen on the road such as debris coming off of trucks and low hanging limbs. To avoid a branch in my eye all I have to do is duck and let the helmet brush it aside. Admittedly, maybe a leather pilot’s hat would be just as good, maybe even more oddball stylish. The best thing a helmet can do is like others here have suggested; use it as a mount for something eye catching like a blinker or reflective; a bike mounted one is just too low, the attention has to pass through 3’+ or over meter high-ness to get at SUV window height and be seen past another car’s windows like a car’s CHMSL lamp.
    I for sure would wear a helmet if a micro A/C could be built into it, even if it was heavy!
    (like a helmet that has shaped freezer gell-packs that go into it?)

  25. John Delphia 3rd says:

    Oh, I should also mention that I bought one of the earliest, rather expensive D3O flexible protective beanies. It looked a little dorky but worked and was warm; the only problem I really had with it was that it’s fabric outer surface would catch on branches/leaves instead of brushing them away. I’m looking for a leather pilot’s hat-like version of D3O to come out.

    Add Tron-style luminescence to it and it would be soo cool 😉

  26. Fraser says:

    I also strongly advocate wearing a helmet. During my college years, The Houghton Lift bridge underwent painting. To allow the workers to work in the wind, the entire bridge was covered in scaffolding and a huge tarp. While crossing the bridge and going around the pillars, a 2×4 came out of nowhere from somewhere behind the tarp. The left grip of my handlebars made contact with the board, and my front wheel immediately snapped left. I went over the handlebars head first, and the side of my head impacted the 1/2 inch thick steel barrier between the sidewalk and the road. I figure I was knocked out for about 10 to 15 minutes. My helmet had a 6 inch crack down the left side. I have decided to keep the helmet as a demonstration piece for kids and stupid adults who ride without a helmet.

  27. IronMac says:

    Bit late but want to chime in. I have been cycling for three decades now. I have always worn a helmet. As a geek, I like them.

    I have been involved in one or two spectacular accidents where my helmet never touched the ground. One was where a taxi rear ended me and I flew through the air for quite a distance. Legs and butt took the brunt of that.

    Where a helmet saved my life was one morning on a wet concrete boardwalk. I was going at 2-3 kms/hr and was standing on my pedals to get a good look around. The front wheel slipped as I turned and I slammed straight down on my side. My helmeted melon went wham! wham! on the concrete.

    Definitely I would have been badly hurt if not killed.

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