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I'm a complete beginner cycling and I've recently started 3 times a week commuting on a hybrid 8 miles to work and 8 miles back. On the way there is a 5% gradient hill about half a mile long which is great fun to whizz down at 30mph on the way to work. It really puts a smile on my face!

It's not so fun on the way back though! Every day I end up having to get off the bike and walk up the steepest part of the hill as I find my legs just give up the ghost - despite my bike having 27 gears, and I've used them all.

What can I do to train to get up the hill? Is it just a matter of keep on trying or is there something specific I can do to help me conquer this hill? I'm assuming it's just my poor level of fitness that means I can't keep it up. It doesn't help that I'm 220lbs - which is why I have started cycling to get that number down as much as possible. Any tips greatly appreciated

For reference the bike is a Giant Escape 1 (2016)

Chain ring: 26/36/48 and cassette 9/11-34 Gear Calc here

  • 1
    A 5% hill is not trivial, and if it averages 5% there are probably spots where it gets up to 8% or so. (It would help to know more about your bike -- does it have low enough gears to allow you to "spin" up the hill at a decent cadence, or do you have to "grind" slowly? Are you using your lowest gear for the worst part?) – Daniel R Hicks Jul 21 '15 at 11:50
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    The sad truth is that there's only really one way to get better at climbing hills, and that's to go climb lots of hills. But realize that there are two kinds of cyclists: those that love to climb hills, and those that don't. It sounds to me like you might like climbing, so just keep hitting the hill until you beat it. – Mohair Jul 21 '15 at 19:26
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    FWIW, I had a similar-sounding uphill commute where on the first ride I had to stop four times to rest, and by the end of the summer I didn't have to stop at all. Keep at it! :) – Reid Jul 21 '15 at 19:30
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    Try going slower, its an endurance challenge not a race. If you're overheating drop clothes before starting the ascent. Hydrate before starting too. If your hill has switchbacks then take the longer path around the edge, not the shorter parth closer to the inside of the turn. If the hill gets steep enough your front wheel is lifting or losing traction, lean forward. Above all, be happy the uphill is on the way home, where a hot shower awats. Imagine it being on the way to work, no fun at all! – Criggie Aug 31 '15 at 4:14
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    Just an update that I conquered that hill today! All the way without stopping at all. Not fast and not graceful but I got there in the end! Thanks for all your help and answers guys! – Gordon Copestake Sep 3 '15 at 17:46

15 Answers 15

34

The gearing of your bike seems reasonable, the 26 front/34 rear combination will (eventually) make climbing hills easy. But till then…

Before you do anything else, take @cherouvim's advice and make sure you seat is at a reasonable height. It should be high enough that if you place a heel on the low pedal your leg is almost fully extended (just short of locked). From there you can fiddle around a bit with the height. Ultimately the seat should be as high as you can get it without needing to rock your hips as you pedal. If your seat is too low climbing will be really hard!

The first question I'd ask is what happens when you run out of steam climbing the hill? Are your legs aching and burning or are you breathing really hard? The reason that I ask is that the different answers point to different immediate problems and possible solutions.

If you're legs are burning, it's a good bet that you're not using a low enough gear. In this case, try shifting to a low gear much earlier in the climb, let your feet "spin" on the pedals. You'll slow down, but the climb should be much easier if you do this.

On the other hand, if you're breathing super hard, you may be spinning too fast. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it may help to use a slightly higher gear, but I'd still make sure that you're starting the climb in a relatively easy gear.

As other's have said, I don't think it be too long before you notice that you are doing much better on the hill. I live in a relatively hilly part of the US and a similar situation to you. I was out of shape from years of sedentary work and infrequent riding. So the final things I want to suggest are ideas for keeping going until better fitness kicks in (I think we're talking weeks, not months):

  • Pedaling faster (at a higher cadence) in a low gear is usually easier than pushing harder in a higher gear. There was a good answer a while back that explained nicely how to find a good cadence for you. I'll see if I can find it and link to it.

  • Choose a strategy for the hill that seems to work for you (really any strategy, just some idea about what you want to try). Having a strategy will make it easier to see if you're making progress and it will also help you identify what to do differently if it feels too hard (e.g., legs really burning? try a lower gear). One idea I'd suggest is to try starting in a lowish, but not your lowest, gear – for me it is very comforting to know I've got a lower gear I can drop down to when the hill gets hard.

  • Keep track of your progress. Notice where you are on the hill when you "bail out." As you get close to that point on each ride psych yourself up to make it or even make it a bit farther. For me, it is easier to push through burning in my legs than through gasping for breath, so I tend to moderate my climbing so that I can breath easily and tough it out on my legs (but that is me, you might have a different way). The important thing is to have some standard for progress so that you can see you're gains – even before you can make the whole hill.

  • Practice standing as you climb, you might find it easier to climb standing. For me standing helps on some hills, but I have to start before my legs are too tired and my gear can't be too low. Standing is one of my "escape hatches" when I discover that I'm in too high a gear on a hill. Sometimes it is just fun, but not @andy256's comment below – it is not an efficient way to climb. The energy expenditure is actually higher than when spinning.

  • My understanding is that working really hard (too the point of exhaustion) a few times a week is necessary to stimulate muscle growth. I don't think you have to work hard for long (just a few minutes), but apparently it is essential.

Two books that I've found really helpful are Just Ride and Eat Bacon, Don't Jog, both by Grant Peterson.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer dlu, some great suggestions there. I must admit I've not tried a higher gear, one for next time. Also, I have to admit I can't remember WHY I have to stop and walk, just that I do! I'll pay more attention next time as like you say, it can give a good clue as to where the problem lies. – Gordon Copestake Jul 21 '15 at 11:59
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    That's interesting about standing – it doesn't seem that way when I do it. – dlu Jul 21 '15 at 23:01
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    It should be noted that you should not work your legs to exhaustion every day, but should provide a day or two between difficult rides to allow your muscles to recover and build up more strength/endurance. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 22 '15 at 2:36
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    Standing allows you to do some of the work with your arms, which may help the op who said his legs give up. It might require more oxygen because it produces more speed! If you can do the hill quickly, I think that's easier than doing it slowly. However I think that is more applicable to short steep hills than longer ones. – joeytwiddle Jul 22 '15 at 9:20
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    Standing also helps when no lower gear is available. You can work with your arms by tilting the bike slightly away from the foot that is pedaling forward & down. – Sumyrda Jul 24 '15 at 5:51
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Just keep on doing the same route and you'll see progress very fast.

Also this will soon not be true:

It's not so fun on the way back though

Some tips to make it:

  • make sure that the tyres are inflated correctly
  • make sure your drivetrain runs smooth and the chain is lubed
  • make sure your seat height is correct (ask your LBS if unsure)
  • conserve energy while climbing and use a small gear
  • learn about the perfect pedal stroke (google it)
  • keep your upper body relaxed - do not tense
  • inhale a lot, from the nose. if you find yourself out of breath, slow down and also consider using a "breathe right" (google it)
  • do not do this every day. keep it 3 days per week as you said, and don't do much physical activity (especially leg related) in the days between
  • Thanks for the tips cherouvim, just a matter of keeping at it then! – Gordon Copestake Jul 21 '15 at 8:20
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    The advice about checking the seat height is very good! – dlu Jul 21 '15 at 12:28
8

(1) Go Slow and Go Easy On Yourself. Climbing hills is supposed to be hard! You are carrying 250 lbs (you, bike, your stuff) 264 feet straight up over that mile.

I was riding once with a guy who has a PowerTap hub (a $500 toy for bike nerds and pro athletes that reports energy expenditure on your bike computer), and he said the main thing he had learned from it is how much your energy expenditure spikes when going uphill. His main takeaway from that, rather than trying to maintain anything like a constant speed when going up a grade, is to try to maintain a constant energy expenditure, which means slow up the hills, usually much slower than most riders choose without any energy expenditure information. My pet theory is that lot of riders operate on a bit of a mental analogy to cars, which typically go the same speed regardless of incline, and feel they should aspire to the same.

You are not a car. Shift to first. Don't rush. I would disagree with the "try shifting up" advice -- that works in some situations, but usually only for stronger riders, so I'd save it until after you can finish the hill on your lowest gear. For a novice rider, one of your concerns should be keeping undue pressure off your knees, which means lower gears and high cadence.

(2) Keep riding. The best way to get better at bike riding is . . . bike riding. Doing a daily commute like you're doing is one of the best ways to get to be a stronger rider. Go easy on yourself -- if you have to walk part of the way, that's fine, walk part of the way -- but don't stop commuting by bike.

(3) Consider clipping in. The downside is that you have to buy new pedals and shoes, and you may well fall over once or twice getting used to them (start using clipped-in pedals in a low-traffic area; get really familiar with how to get out of them before you even start riding). The upside is they keep your feet well positioned and allow power transfer on the upstroke. I've found that Time ATAC pedals are easier to get in and out of than the more ubiquitous Shimanos, for about the same price.

  • For whatever it might be worth… I'm one of the upshift suggesters, the trade off for me is that sometimes I find it easier, psychologically for sure and maybe even physically, be in a slightly higher gear when I'm climbing. – dlu Jul 21 '15 at 22:15
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    I do not doubt your experience, but mine is that I've injured my knee riding in too high of a gear, when training back up from a period of inactivity. Since OP is "a complete beginner" and has a few extra pounds, lower gears probably best here. – joseph_morris Jul 22 '15 at 2:15
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    Totally agree with you on this. When I upshift it is only a gear or two, it is still "easy." I think your point is very well made about stressing knees, it has to be within the range of what your knees can handle. The point I wanted to make was that part of climbing is in your mind – for me a climb in too low a gear is demoralizing because it takes "too long" and I get bored. It was a revelation for me that I could go a bit faster and actually find the climb easier. So I wanted to point out that a climb that seems too hard might actually get easier with a bit more effort. – dlu Jul 22 '15 at 3:16
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    Thanks for your help guys. Lowest gear and dont stop it is! – Gordon Copestake Jul 22 '15 at 6:39
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There are no shortcuts, it's about building the legs, and lungs, and body. There may be some factors that could make it a little easier, but the main factor is getting strong enough, which takes some time and some dedication.

Starting in the easiest gear may not be the best choice as it can make a climb seem endless. Try to get into the hill at good speed, with your legs cycling at a comfy cadence, not like a windmill, and then try to maintain that cadence, when it gets hard you can either step up on the pedals, or go to an easier gear, maybe do both in that order... But keep doing it, maybe do some leisure rides that have some climbs that you can do, and go up those... It's about getting your body used to it mostly...

  • Thanks for the tips gaurwraith - pretty much what I thought : just stick with it – Gordon Copestake Jul 21 '15 at 10:12
7

You already have some good, helpful answers. Well done for sticking at that hill!

Make sure you're riding on slick tires, and have them pumped up pretty hard. Soft, wide tires would rob much of your effort.

Regarding the hill. There are several things involved in sustained climbing

  • Technique. Do you rush at it the bottom? Or do you try to just settle to the easiest gear, and plug away? Until you have more strength, click down a gear as soon as the one you're in gets noticeably harder. You may find a rhythm like change pedal five strokes and change again. When you're in the lowest gear, just try to keep it going at whatever slow pace you can. Then try the advice in the Strength and Muscular endurance sections below. Another consideration is clipless pedals. If you don't have them, then consider getting them; they can make pedaling twice as efficient. If you do have them, make sure you are using them to give different muscles a rest. They can be used to pull up as well as drive the pedals all the way around. Finally, if there are steeper parts of the hill, then try them on alternate rides.

  • Strength. You will certainly need to build up your strength. Do that by working the muscles hard for a short period. Give them a rest, then do it again. This is called interval training. Applying it to your hill, climb as far as you can, or for say, one minute. Then walk for a minute or two. Then get back on and ride for another minute, alternating until you're at the top. Importantly take a day off the next day, to let those muscles recover and grow.

  • Muscular endurance. When the strength training seems to be showing results (such as you can do the intervals with less discomfort), start increasing the duration of each one. Keep the recovery periods the same. It will not be long before you can climb the entire hill.

  • Heart and circulatory system. These are probably not used to the demands you are putting on them. Your heart has to grow stronger, and your circulatory system has to grow and develop also. So go steadily, and don't expect miracles. Listen to what you're body is telling you. If you're healthy, then steady work will produce the results. But if you have any concerns do consult a physician.

  • Lungs and blood oxygenation. These have to develop also. They will. Again, give them the work and they'll respond. But give them the time to develop. Try to breathe deeply and slowly. Breathe in quickly through your mouth if you have to, but breath out slowly through your nose. The slow out breath is the important part; it's the part of the breathing cycle where your lungs are extracting the oxygen. The out through the nose part is good for control, and also when it's warmer to retain moisture.

Don't rush to change your bike. Get experience with this one.

Keep at it! It will not be long before you look back at this time, and use it for motivation to overcome other challenges!

Edit In response to your update on the gearing - the gears you have look fine. One day you'll look back and say with these gears I can climb vertical walls! So just stick at it. When you can climb the whole hill in the lowest gear, work up to climbing in the next lowest. Change up and down as you need to. Eventually you'll be be able to climb the whole thing in that gear ... keep doing it until one day you can climb it on the middle chain ring :-)

  • Hi Andy, thanks for the tips. For reference, if it makes any difference, it's a Hybrid (Giant Escape 1 2016). I think the bike is right, it's me that needs "upgrading"! – Gordon Copestake Jul 21 '15 at 11:33
  • D'oh! You already said that in your question. I'll edit that part out :-) – andy256 Jul 21 '15 at 11:46
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    Andy's advice (and your sense) about not being in a hurry to upgrade the bike is very sound. There is almost always a ton of improvement that can be made before you need to spend much, if any, money. – dlu Jul 21 '15 at 12:31
  • On the day I can climb it on the middle chainring I'll have a smile on my face going down AND going up! – Gordon Copestake Jul 21 '15 at 12:49
7

The bike can do it, and so can you, though maybe not yet.

My old commute had a 20-25% hill on it, and my bottom gear was 28x32 on 700x35 tyres. It took a few goes before I could ride up it without stopping. It wasn't as long as yours but the total climb was probably similar.

Take it easy, you don't want to be breathing hard on approach (a slightly less steep option for me was harder because traffic meant working hard before the steep bit) and aim for a little further each time you do it.

If the road is really quiet (mine was a dead end) be able to weave a little bit on the way up -- the total effort will be more but the rate of climb will be less for a given speed. Such a quiet route can also mean that you can stop, catch your breath and get going again by starting across the road (like I said, mine was very quiet).

Make sure your front gears are shifting nicely and try to change down at the front early -- mine was from a (near-) standing start so I made sure to change into my smallest chain ring before I started, but a middling sprocket.

I didn't find it helpful to stand up -- standing and pedalling at such low speeds doesn't do my balance any favours -- but others will say the opposite: find what works for you.

There's no shame in walking; it might even be quicker. I've walked up that same hill and passed cyclists riding up it, and I have to stop and catch my breath when I reach the top.

As for why you're stopping, it could be:

  • Your lungs say no
  • Your legs say no
  • You "stall" i.e. can't get from the downstroke on one side to the downstroke on the other side

All of these will improve with practice. Not getting too hot will help as well, maybe take a layer off before the hill if you've got one to spare.

6

I had this problem some years ago. I commuted to work Monday to Friday.

It was very simple, I rode as far as I felt comfortable and then got off and pushed the bike.

As the days and weeks went by, I noticed that I was getting further and further up the hill before needing to get off. I even started to notice small landmarks to measure my progress.

Eventually I got to the point where I could do the whole hill without even thinking about it. I had trouble remembering how tough it had been at first.

Note: The commute was pretty much the only cycling I did at the time. I was certainly no athlete. I had a bog-standard sit-up-and-beg with Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub gears. Eventually I could do the whole hill in the middle gear no problem.

  • Thanks for your answer chasly, inspiring that if you can do it on 3 gears I should have no problems with 27! – Gordon Copestake Jul 22 '15 at 6:40
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Most everyone else has concentrated on the physical and/or your bike, and rightly so.

But the one thing I'd like to add is the mental side of riding hills. Here is the one thing I'd like you to keep in mind:

You can do more than you think you can

Try it next time you're going up that hill. Just as you're about to get off to walk, look about 20 feet ahead of your bike, spot a landmark such as a mailbox or a rock, and try to ride to it. I bet you can.

Then look ahead another 30 feet, spot another landmark and challenge yourself to get to it.

Don't think about the top of the hill. Think about little landmarks along the way.

Even if you end up stopping to walk, you'll have gotten farther up the hill than you initially meant to/thought you could.

Next time do the same; go further than you think you can. The energy is in you. The will is in you.

Soon you'll landmark yourself right up and over that hill!

  • Really well said! – dlu Jul 25 '15 at 16:43
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My problem was always going off too quickly to begin with. Don't watch the pros to begin with. My tip is to go real slow. Get the lowest gear and just plod along. You can do almost any climb if you do it slow enough. Once you've done it slow to prove to yourself the hill can be beaten, repeat, but pick up the tempo as the top is in sight. As you improve, pick up the tempo earlier on the hill.

Remember as you improve, your weight may not drop to begin with. Muscle weighs more than fat. As you improve your muscles will grow, your weight might stay the same, but your waist will start to shrink :-)

4

Something that can help is called your "stroke".

A novice is inclined to push straight down on the pedal ... and then, straight down on the other pedal ... so that you're pushing down, and then pushing down.

A more experienced rider has a more continuous "cycle":

  • Push the pedal forward when it's at the top (i.e. at "12 o'clock")
  • Push the pedal down when it's at the front (i.e. at "3 o'clock")
  • Pull the pedal back when it's at the bottom (i.e. at "6 o'clock")
  • Pull the pedal up when it's at the back (i.e. at "9 o'clock")

Doing this is obviously easier when your shoes are clipped to the pedals.

Clipping your feet to the pedals is a long subject (which I won't try to detail here), but interesting.

Even if your feet aren't clipped you can partially emulate this full-cycle stroke, e.g.:

  • Ensure that, when you're pushing down with one foot, the other foot is being held fairly weightless on (not resting its whole weight on) the other pedal
  • Even if you don't have enough grip to push and pull when the pedals are vertical (at 12 and 6 oclock), you can begin to push earlier in the stroke (e.g. when the pedal is at 1 o'clock, instead of waiting until the pedal is at 2 or 3 o'clock).
  • 1
    The amount of power you transfer to the bike is equal to: "the force on the pedal" multiplied by "the distance the pedal moves" multiplied by "the number of times the pedal moves" (i.e. RPM). I assume you're already pushing hard (which is why you get tired) with a high RPM (because you're in lowest gear) ... so pushing over more of that 360 degree circle affects that third variable i.e. the distance over which the pedal is pushed. Even without being clipped you might be able to increase the length/distance of your stroke by 50% or more. – ChrisW Jul 21 '15 at 12:39
  • There seems to be a diversity of opinion on whether we really can pedal in a 360 degree circle (at least for any length of time). But, in my experience, trying to do it does help and it also spreads the load over different muscles which – at least in theory – should be a big help. – dlu Jul 25 '15 at 16:45
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The good news is that climbing is a great way to get fit!

As Eddy Merckx said: "Don't buy upgrades; ride up grades."

Listen to your body and get a feel for how hard you can push continuously, and what it feels like when you go above that (for example, I start feeling slightly nauseous). You can look up aerobic vs anaerobic to learn more about what happens.

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One thing I haven't seen mentioned is that climbing is not just about legs. Your upper body plays a large part in the process. Personally, I feel like it is 50% legs, and 50% arms and core. I can't back that up with any studies, but I believe it to be true. Your upper body does a lot of work stabilizing the bike and providing the leverage your legs need to turn the pedals, especially when you are standing. So work on the legs, but add some crunches and pull-ups every day and you will definitely see an increase in your climbing ability in a few weeks.

3

There are many good replies here. Read them a few times and consider carefully what everyone is saying.

Based on my experience-- I totally lacked any fitness when I began to ride again as a middle-aged adult-- the hill you're trying to ride is a little ambitious, if you're carrying a few extra pounds and your fitness has not been developed sufficiently. However, as everyone has indicated, it totally do-able, given enough time and effort. And you're not riding some vintage road bike with a 42/26 lowest gear (which clocks in at 42 gear-inches, about twice as much as your actual lowest gear, which comes in at 19.9 gear-inches).

I have a couple of similar climbs near where I live (both about 0.4 miles, one with an average grade of 3%, and one with an average grade of 8%), and when I first started riding, I could just make the 3% grade, using the lowest gear on my vintage mountain bike (very similar to what your bike has), and it was a good long while before I attempted the 8% grade. On one of my first attempts of the 8% grade, I was passed on the way up by a female jogger, and she must have noticed how hard I was breathing, because I was really laboring. But over time, I kept riding, and now it's not that much of a big deal to do the 8% grade.

So, keep riding, and I think you'll find that this climb becomes less intimidating very soon.

  • Thanks for the pep talk Zippy - I'm going to keep at it! I'll get to the top eventually – Gordon Copestake Jul 24 '15 at 9:06
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Your bikes gearing might not be ideal for you. Your bike will be like most and have a large overlap. The size of the cogs is what is most important here. If after a few rides you are not seeing improvement, think about getting the bike setup with lower gearing. Its often an easy job (But can get expensive depending on all sorts of things) and does not cost much to get the LBS to do it for you. What are the sizes of your chain rings (These are the ones that are attached to the pedal cranks, particularly smallest) and the cluster (The cogs on the rear wheel - especially the largest) - It is the smallest chain ring to largest cog that determines the lowest gear.

2

As a strong swimmer, one bit of advise I give is, "let the wall come to you." In other words, when you set that next landmark as your next goal, take one stroke at a time and watch your goal get closer and closer. Don't think, "I have x far to go." Just think, "one more stroke" and the goal magically gets closer.

I agree with the answers above which recommend core strength, as well. This is also very true when swimming, and I suspect with many other sports.

  • 3
    Gidday and welcome to SE - thank you for your contribution. Looks like the fourth paragraph is the answer, and the rest is ancillary information. If you would please browse the tour then you'll see how StackExchange is all around Answers to the Question - so try and keep the answer relevant to the question. Good first answer though. – Criggie Jun 17 '17 at 5:01
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    Welcome to Bicycles.SE. As mentioned by @Criggie, the answer you posted is very friendly, and very informative. The useful bits of information, however, are buried in the extraneous personal information that you included. Stack Exchange sites are different than many forums, in that the format is directly Q&A oriented. If information is not directly part of the answer, it should be left out, to leave the answer more clear to all users. I've edited your answer, trying to keep the flavor, and the relevant information, while removing the extraneous. Let me know what you think.:) – zenbike Jun 17 '17 at 20:49

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