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I am seriously considering getting a recumbent trike, probably one in a tadpole configuration, and was weighting up how much time I would save during my commute when compared to my normal bike.

Currently, I ride Giant Cypress and my speed averages about 22kmh on my commute. My commute is about 16kms, one way, and is over a mixture of forest trails and asphalt bike paths.

I am also thinking about using the recumbent bike over the winter months as well.

  • 1
    I would expect that a recumbent will not be as comfortable on forest trails. – Mac Sep 5 '11 at 22:59
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    Some say recumbent's are faster on flat ground than a road bike, opinions vary. I think you get more power to the pedals on them than an upright....answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101024210914AAihb2Z – Moab Sep 6 '11 at 3:14
  • One would think that, but bent riders I've talked to say that bents are at a disadvantage on uphills, which doesn't make sense if you can apply more power. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 6 '11 at 11:08
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    When riding an upright bike I stand up when over bumps. I'm sure my legs provide a lot more suspension than any bike suspension. So I assume (although I have no first hand experience) that it'd be bumpier on a recumbent. Might be worth a new question. – Mac Sep 6 '11 at 21:04
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    I suggest looking at velomobiles. If you can afford it and one will work on your route, that will solve both the speed and winter problems. – Móż Sep 26 '13 at 22:09

21 Answers 21

26

All other things being equal (which admittedly, they never are), a recumbent trike will be slower. It has more frontal area, more rolling resistance, and more weight.

I don't have a recumbent bike, but I do have a conventional racing bike and a recumbent trike (a very low-slung tadpole, not a delta). On a frequently-ridden 37-mile loop, my average speed on my racing bike is about 15.5 mph, average on the trike is 14.3 mph. So at the speeds and distances you're riding, the net time difference won't be that great.

All that said, the trike is a lot of fun.

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    +1 - the fun factor is definitely one of the aspects I am looking towards :-) It also sounds like that to go any faster, a fairing of some sort is needed. Thanks! – tehnyit Sep 6 '11 at 13:55
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    Recumbents are good for continuous power and with a fairing can be very aero efficient. That is why recumbents have land speed records. However, recumbents are comparatively bad at instantaneous power which is why a road bike will beat a recumbent clinging hills and from a dead stop. Unless the commute is one straight run with no hills or stops, it is not unthinkable that the road bike is faster. – RoboKaren May 14 '17 at 5:58
15

World human powered bike speed records are indeed on recumbent bicycles. But they are very long, flat roads where a rider can move through 60 gears (30 speed chain, and a 3 speed internal hub). They also have larger wind screens.

I have ridden both, and just flat cruising the recumbent will be faster, but hills, corners, and stops are the great equalizer. Every time you slow down or stop, things will seem to balance out on your total times.

So go for what is comfortable, easy to lock up on your commute, and not a hazard to others. I assume that on a shared bike path with a tadpole trike it will be harder to pass and be passed safely.

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    I have real concerns about the options on passing other bikes. On my commute, I ride across a bridge where the bike paths is, lets say, optimsed for upright bikes. Sometimes, there are motorised scooters coming in the opposite direction. There is no way of passing safely and at speed in this situation. – tehnyit Mar 26 '12 at 22:17
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    Actually, world speed record bikes usually have 9 gears - no front derailleur. Starting off involves the launch crew pushing, then some wobbling. – Móż Sep 26 '13 at 22:08
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Recumbents can be faster. As was previously mentioned, all of the land speed records for human powered vehicles were set with fully faired recumbents (velomobiles).

But what will really make the difference is the rider.

Consider this rider you've never heard of, Andy Wilkinson. In 1990 he broke the record for fastest bicycle trip from Lands End to John O'Groats, 874 miles (1,407 km), at 45 hours 2 minutes 19 seconds, on a bicycle. In 1996 he did the same trip again, this time in a fully faired recumbent, and broke his own record, coming in at 41 hours 4 minutes 22 seconds. (This number is unofficial because it didn't take place on a two wheeled bicycle, but no one else has yet beaten this time...)

On that ride he occasionally exceeded 75 mph (120 km/h) on descents. And that was a nearly 20 year old machine. The typical top end recumbent of today is much more technologically advanced, and is usually partially faired.

2014 Windcheetah HyperSport

Recumbents also do very well in time trials and ultramarathon events such as the Race Across America.


But how will it do for your commute?

Not all recumbents are designed for road racing, of course. The things you want to look for which will improve your ride both on roads and forest trails in all weather include:

  • A larger rear wheel
  • Rear suspension (or all-wheel suspension, rare)
  • High ground clearance
  • The ability to mount fatter tires
  • Fenders (which also fit around the tires!)

Some current (2015 model year) possibilities include:

The Gekko from HP Velotechnik uses a 26 inch rear wheel to help with obstacles you might run over on the road or even forest trails. It also has an electric option. It also has higher ground clearance, to make it easier to clear obstacles.

Similarly the Catrike Expedition has higher ground clearance and a 26 inch wheel. This trike is often called the SUV of trikes. Or the Road which has a 20 inch rear wheel but also includes rear suspension.

The ICE Adventure 26 also has a 26 inch wheel and has high ground clearance; the seat is also much higher than many other trikes. It also includes rear suspension and has a front suspension option.

There are also other trikes for primarily off-road use, such as HPV's Enduro. And a modified ICE Sprint was used to ride to the South Pole, beating two bicycle riders. I suspect your forest trails are not quite so demanding as to make these reasonable for your commute, though.

I would suggest that you find a local bike (trike?) shop which specializes in recumbents, or perhaps several shops, and take them for test rides. Unless you have a very large recumbent dealer nearby, they may not have the exact model you are looking for in stock, so you may find yourself riding a similar model. Be prepared to travel if you want to test ride the perfect recumbent.


Finally, back to your original question. To ask it accurately, you must ask whether you will be faster on a recumbent trike! The answer is, maybe. Once you get your recumbent legs, which may take a month or two, you should be at about the same overall speed, give or take a km/h or two.

Whether you can go faster, well, that's entirely up to you. I expect you will find that the experience of riding the recumbent is so much more comfortable that you won't miss an extra minute or two - or just might even want to ride more!

  • I disagree on the 'larger rear wheel' part of this answer (otherwise a great answer). Now-a-days 20-inch rear wheels on suspension-enabled trikes can be just as fast and comfortable and can provide an equal ground clearance (due to frame geometry not wheel size) as their larger brethren. Plus, the shorter spokes typically means better weight handling and a stronger resistance to side-loading stress in turns. – the digitalmouse Jun 28 '17 at 12:20
  • This is a great answer thanks! It also leads towards more information that is really useful... – kiltannen May 13 at 3:25
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Commercial recumbent trikes are not like light weight upright diamond frame road bikes.

I've been riding high end light weight road bikes for 35 years and have ridden well over 60,000 miles during that time. At 65 I still average 17 mph on my after work 30 mile bike ride.

At the start of 2015 I bought a Catrike Expedition and rode the same 30 mile route for 2,700 miles over the summer. My average speed drop from 17 mph to 13 mph. The majority of the loss was from slow uphill climbs. I can go up most hills on my bike at 10 to 12 mph. On the trike I very seldom go over 5 mph. On flat roads I'm usually 2 mph slower than the road bike, down hill is about the same as the road bike.

I would suggest getting a trike with an electric wheel assist if you need to go up many hills. If you're stuck on speed don't buy a recumbent trike.

On the other hand in my experience the fun out weighs the loss in speed.

  • I've noticed I can do about the same cruising speed on the flat, but my heart rate is easily 20 BPM lower in the bent than doing the same speed on the road bike. – Criggie Jul 21 '18 at 10:03
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I own a Catrike 700 and also owned a high end upright road bicycle with CF tubular rims, etc. and a Powertap wheel. The Powertap wheel can be mounted on the trike to capture heart rate, wattage, speed, etc. I've ridden the trike over 200 miles and focused on fitting for half that distance (crank length, Q factor, seating position, arm placement, etc.) to optimize performance.

The trike overall is slower. It's a barge on climbs (33 lbs vs 16 lbs for my bike) and rolling resistance of extra bearing set and contact patch for third wheel cannot be ignored. My position is among the most aggressive at 25 degrees and coast down also speaks volumes - close to 100 feet more coast down on the bike than the trike, but on the bike I really made myself small, tucked in knees, elbows, leaned over uncomfortably, but the frontal area really shrunk. On the trike you're stuck where you are. The only time the trike really shined was on the descent. 40+ mph down moderate hills was easy, whereas on the bike it was next to impossible. Just remember you have to climb back up some time. I bought the trike due to a dissolving hip joint, otherwise I would have kept my bike.

5

A small point; but, recumbents were banned from racing with normal bikes early in the twentieth century - they were too fast. I have a homemade tadpole (now retired due to hip problems), I (and my dog) rode it for about 12 years in preference to my normal road bike. It weighs the same as an MTB but is way faster. I rode it almost daily and on many occasions found myself passing cycling clubs on their carbon fibre, mega dollar bikes. Except up hills of course - very slow.; I'm 65 BTW.

4

I just purchased a tadpole TerraTrike Tour II Elite and I can't say enough about this particular design, make and model. I made myself keep going today, and was able to do 25.2 miles... my first time on the local bike path. What an exhilarating experience! I ended up at this page as I was curious if riding my tadpole is suppose to be easier than riding a conventional speed bike. A seasoned cyclist I met on the bike path commented that tadpoles are not faster. I know at one point she zoomed right by me, but then again, she is an avid bike rider... I am still green, just starting out.

Thinking it through, it seemed at first that the Tadpole would be faster, but then when I considered that there's drag from two front wheels and a wider mass in the front of the tadpole, it almost seems to me as the effort to ride either would be about equal, all things considered.

One thing that's for certain is that the tadpole is far more comfortable for a middle-aged gal like me. I also enjoy being able to see clearly what's in front of me without straining my neck. There's 27 speeds, so going up hills seems much easier, but when cruising on the open trail the higher gears are much more of a physical workout than the 18 speed I use to ride.

I highly recommend this model of tadpole. TerraTrike Rocks!!!

4

I own a Trice Q and several other bikes...

The answer to your question is "it depends".

With a 70 km/h wind straight in your face (according to the weather office), the trike will certainly go faster. At least it will go forward. On that particular day I overtook a guy on an electric bicycle. He was the only cyclist going in that direction...

50 km/h wind in your face feels about like a 6-8% slope, that is, it takes some effort, but it's not too bad. Try that on a race bike, good luck.

Lateral wind, don't care about that.

Wind from the rear provides a small boost.

If there is no wind, the trike is slower than a touring bike, and even slower uphill.

However I can ride 8 hours without destroying my butt, comfort is a plus...

If you intend to ride on trails, don't forget that recumbent trikes have a very very low chain which will pick up a lot of crap, and you'll spend way too much time cleaning it.

A 2 wheel recumbent with suspension could be a better choice. Or just keep your bike...

3

Bike speed is primarily limited by wind resistance, and a major factor for wind resistance is "frontal area". I would guess that most trikes have more frontal area than your standard upright bike, so it's unlikely that you'd see a speed improvement.

But maybe someone else can point to some actual test data.

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    Here are some actual test data: bentrideronline.com/messageboard/… These data show that a (tadpole) trike (the Vortex) has roughly the same CdA as a rider on a standard road bike with hands on the brake hoods -- that is, more aero drag than a rider on a TT bike or in the drops on a road bike, but less than a rider with hands on the bar tops, or on a MTB or a city bike. However, this particular trike has much higher rolling resistance. – R. Chung Apr 16 '12 at 22:15
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    I should clarify that among trikes, the ICE Vortex is considered to be fairly low, reclined, and aerodynamic; this means that the "typical" trike will have higher CdA than measured for the Vortex. – R. Chung Apr 16 '12 at 23:07
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I own a Catrike 700 and yes they are super fun and fast on dowhills and flats,but the only way you could match a upright on hills is if you are stronger than the rider on that upright bike.I also own an upright and yes it is a lot more uncomfortable but weight to power ratio is a biggie,I can hang and even pass rodies @23/25mph constant on my trike on flats no problem at all,but when uphill comes it sucks,on a steep hill on the trail I ride norm on the 700 will do around,8/10mph while on my Madone Trek carbon I spin around 12/14mph perfectly,there are advantages on trikes and on upright,both are fun and both are part of the sport,wich ever you pick depending on your riding style you will love any of the two always test ride before buying so you don't regret at the end.Keep pedaling it makes your body good so pass it on :-)!

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Personally I would go recumbent with e assist. I ride a high end road bike and I go alright for a guy in his 50s, my wife rides a tadpole trike with e assist and she can pretty much kick anyone's butt, especially up hill. It has allowed us to ride together and we can either do the coffee shop cruise or absolutely smash it. She has a Greenspeed Magnum XL fitted with a BBSHD To put it in perspective, we have a 3km section near where we live that is part of a Triathlon event (One of the biggest in the world) Fastest ever time up that hill is 5:04 (STRAVA) The trike did it with panniers and the dog in the back in 4:50. That was with assist level 9 she never uses more than assist level 5

  • That's an interesting data point - do you have any similar numbers for a trike without the electric assist ? – Criggie May 14 '17 at 2:55
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    How many nominal watts does the electric motor put out? From your description I would guess a lot (e.g., 800 watts) – Rider_X Jun 22 '18 at 0:18
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In traffic a recumbent trike is a pain with no view over cars and through windows, so you need to ride defensively.

Cars tend to avoid you when they come from behind as the driver does see you even when they think they don't. I've had complaints that they didn't see me but hey they have never hit me, can't say that about my normal bike.

Narrow cycle ways and traffic obstructions are annoying and slow. Parking is a real pain because more things to worry about and bigger to park. Getting on a train/bus is almost impossible, not a peak hour thing.

Having said all of that its faster riding to work. I ride 50 km in the morning (average 25 km/h (15.5 mph) on mostly tar and flat cycle ways, with few hills) vs 21-24 km/h (13-15 mph) on a good upright. But the real advantage is comfort. I can walk afterwards and cycle home again. I can also sit down as well which helps (at the end of the ride).

I ride a 36 year old Windcheetah (weighing 36 lb or 16.3 kg), no joke its an old one but its still brilliant.

Don't think of it as a forest trail bike or roadster. The width of trails would limit you there and manoeuvrability of recumbents in general in tight confines is also not great. For that I have a Moulton APB (All Purpose Bike, the space-frame one.)

  • 36 lb seems low, especially for an older steel trike - an Aluminium Greenspeed Magnum is listed as 42 lb. (edit) No the windcheetah is very very light with a manufacturer's weight of only 33lb [15kg] Astonishing! – Criggie Jan 17 '18 at 19:01
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In the winter, on sand, slush and icy roads, 3 wheels are safer and thus can be ridden faster than the upright. Plus I've seen mini-windsheilds on cat-trikes that are quite popular around here.

Riding comfort (your rear) will be better on the recumbent.

In good weather the recumbent will, all things being equal,be a little slower than the upright, but the all-weather aspects of commuting sounds like a real plus to me.

1

It has been my personal experience that a bicycle is noticeably faster than a recumbent. The EZ3SX I have weighs 54 pounds (24.5 kg) out of the box and 60 pounds (27.2 kg) with basket, lights and a few accessories. My prior bicycle weighed substantially less than half that amount.

Additionally, a recumbent trike has more rolling resistance (more rubber on the road). As for aerodynamics, I am not convinced that there is much difference. I like my recumbent trike, but would revert to a two-wheeled bike in a flash were it not for an injury that makes bicycling impossible.

1

I use a Greenspeed steel touring recumbent trike, with 20" Shwalbe Marathon 32mmm tyres, weighing 18kg with a pannier rack. I used to have a Vivente aluminium / carbon fork road bike weighing under 10kg, with 23mm road bike tyres. On three laps of Canberra's mainly flat road race track - a total of 3.6km - the road bike was about 2- 3 seconds faster.

All round, I find the trike on cycle paths and on the road about about as fast as my steel frame upright touring bike which is 14kg with pannier rack and a more comparable machine. The trike is a bit faster than the touring bike downhill - but only if it is safe to ride faster - and faster into the wind and in cross winds. The trike is slower uphill but only because of the weight. On any longer hill the main limitation is weight and aerobic capacity, not how much strength can be applied to the pedals. Riding with groups of bikes the bike is better as it matches the rhythm of pace other riders.

I live in Ballina NSW and previously Canberra up hills; for shopping I like the trike, as even though it is slow you are not weaving and pushing against the weight of the panniers as you climb. The one down side is that in summer you are riding slower for longer uphill on the trike than the Canberra bush flies, or in Ballina the mosquitoes, but at least with the latter you can see and kill them more easily on the trike!

1

Personal experience - I have a 15 kilo road bike and a 19 kilo high racer recumbent bike.

On the flat I can do approximately the same speeds on both bikes as shown by this 5.17 km flat stretch with 5 traffic lights.

Own work

On a local climb of 404 metres at 7% average, I took 49 min 31 on the bent and all my times on the road bike are between 30 min and 33 1/4 minutes.

Own work

Finally - I've only got 220 km on this recumbent so far, and there are a number of things I want to change when money permits, which should help with the overall speed at least on the flat.

EDIT After about 6 months, my bent's odometer is now 4,418 km and I'm commuting 25 km a day each way. The bent is great for travelling consistently. The average speed once at-speed is easily 4-7 km/h faster than the road bike, and for significantly less effort. My HRM shows 20 BPM lower on the bent. A headwind increases the difference in speed and effort. A gradient, well that's where the road bike blows the bent away.

For safety the bent is awesome - some of my commute is narrow and every single driver has seen it and adjusted their on-road position to go around me. When on the same road on an upright, there's at least one close pass every couple of days. I think this is to do with looking vastly different.

Slow speed control and riding in close traffic is another failing for lower bikes - you're literally harder to see when below a 4WD's window-sill. So I have DRLs and a chopper flag, and I'm not slow to shout if required.

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    I think you'll become way faster given more time. I have at least 1000km on my recumbent by now and I'm still noticeably improving my technique and power output. For example I tend to press my shoulders against the seat during sprints, but the right way is to completely relax the upper body and press only your butt and the area just above against the lowest part of the seat. Makes a huge difference. Then there is curve riding which I also still need to work on. And so on. – Nobody Jun 24 '18 at 12:31
  • @nobody - updated with more distance. – Criggie Feb 7 at 10:34
  • Thanks for the ping, interesting to hear. – Nobody Feb 7 at 14:56
  • How fast is the bent compared to the road bike on descents? – Michael Hampton Feb 7 at 18:24
  • @MichaelHampton Depends on whether I push hard on the downhill. I've got a lot of runs around strava.com/segments/8011736 Best time 1min36s and worst time about 2 minutes. bent gets 1m44s 1m41s 1m50s. Curiously the best time ever was on the 14 kilo raleigh road bike. If the road were wide and smooth with heaps of runout I'd go faster, but its got gravel and people and stuff. Its a lot better at coasting than any other bike. The main point is the bent is less effort for the same flatland speed. – Criggie Feb 7 at 19:18
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It all comes down aerodymanics (less wind resistence) which is why recumbents were banned from the UCI. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recumbent_bicycle for more info.

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I own a Catrike Villager. It weighs in at around 38lbs. Compared to my old bicycle that weighed about 25lbs the Catrike Villager is faster downhill and on some paved flat trails. It fails to match bicycle speed uphill probably due to added weight and three wheel friction. However the pros of the Catrike over a bicycle are too numerous to tell here. Seat comfort, no neck strain, freedom to move my hands around, fun, etc.

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I once got to borrow a Windcheetah trike for a week. On flats and downhills it was crazy fast and also an absolute blast to ride. For pure fun they're hard to beat! On hills of any real length it was distinctly slower. For me the biggest downside of a trike or recumbent is that you can only use one set of muscles because there's no way to change your position. This is very different from an upright bike where you can get out of the saddle and engage different muscles. This is why on long distance events such a Paris-Brest-Paris uprights still rule. I also found bumps and potholes more uncomfortable because there was no way to get out of the saddle to absorb the impact. If I'm going to do a long (300+km) ride I'd take an upright every single time.

0

I ride several different recumbent bikes and trikes as well as a sit-up bike for my 5km commute and find that I am about as fast on each of them.
In my view that is because I adjust the speed of the bike/trike to what I am happy with on that piece of road or path. And that is for a big part because of other road users, specially in areas with many roads crossing mine.

A trike on a trail which is flat enough is really stable, but having three wheels with which to avoid roots or stones sticking up out of the track does make life harder, so your speed might be restricted to how well you can see restricting things on your trail.
I do not own a tadpole trike, as I felt very uncomfortably difficult to see when I tried one out (and I do not have the money to buy everything I might want) but part of your speed choice on roads shared with other traffic might be how well visible you will be or feel. Flags can help but only so far.

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If recumbent trikes are considered much faster downhill than road bikes, which is the case, with 40-50 mph (65-80 km/h) commonly stated with ease, then it blows away the argument they are less aero.

They are disadvantaged by weight, although some, like the catrike 700 are comparable with mountain bikes at least, at 33lb (15 kg) which isn't bad considering they have an extra wheel.

Much of the argument that road bikes are faster uphill seems to depend on the rider standing, which could be considered a bit wimpy. Standing is surely cheating if one is comparing bents and uprights fairly. Sadly, cyclists never seem to state whether their speed advantage uphill is because of standing. A recumbent rider used to riding uphill in the normal sitting position should not notice too much difference and might even be quicker, because they can push against the seat. Most enthusiast road bike riders do stand on hills though, which might account for the meme that they are faster on a road bike. As to recumbent bikes, the advantage is massive. The raptobike lowracer for example is faster than even a TT bike.

  • Hello and welcome to Stack Exchange. Please have a look at the tour. Stack Exchange is very much unlike a forum. Replies to questions ought to be focused on answering the question. Would you be so kind to edit your reply, taking into acount that, and also readabilty? For example paragraphs improve it greatly. – gschenk Jul 20 '18 at 23:37
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    As a general tip to recumbent enthusiast: don't rant and don't sound bitter. Calling people wimps also usually doesn't help. – ojs Jul 21 '18 at 10:00
  • There are plenty of people who ride uphill on road bikes without standing. But so what? If you want to know what is faster, it makes no sense to place arbitrary restrictions. – David Richerby Jul 21 '18 at 14:37
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    After all, it is not the bike that is faster, it is the bike+rider that can be compared. As such, the very question, and most answers that point to one or another system are bound to be opinion/taste based. – Grigory Rechistov Jul 24 '18 at 13:22

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