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How to ride your bike through a wintery wonderland without falling off

When the temperature drops, roads develop a new hazard: ice and snow.  Some choose not to risk it, and hang up their bikes for the frozen season, but with the right preparation you can keep riding all through winter.

Some winter survival tips are about preparation, some about riding technique. Let's get your bike sorted out first.

Before you ride

Maximise your contact patch. Fitting fatter tyres, and running them at lower pressures, will increase the size of your contact with the road, so go for the fattest that will fit your frame. If you know you're going to be riding in snow, then a treaded tyre or even a lightly knobbed mountain bike or cyclocross tyre will give extra grip. 

Schwable Marathon Winter crop.jpg

Schwable Marathon Winter crop.jpg

Get studded. Even the best tyres won't grip sheet ice. If you think you're going to encounter proper black ice — which has a nasty habit of lurking at the bottoms of hills on minor lanes and anywhere water runs off fields — then get some studded tyres like  Schwalbe Marathon Winters or Continental Nordic Spikes.

Go tubeless. The main benefit is that you can run super-low pressures for ice, and not risk punctures. You can buy specific tubeless rims and tyres, but we've had good results with standard rims, tyres, some sealant and a roll of electrical tape. You can only run the DIY version up to about 50psi, but that's more than enough for ice & snow.

Read more: Buyer's guide to tubeless wheels

Flat pedals. You may sacrifice some pedalling efficiency, at least until you get used to the different feel, but you are buying get out of jail extra control if things go wrong. If you can't live without clipless pedals, then loosening the release tension is another option and double-sided mountain bike pedals with recessed cleats in the shoes are good.

Fixie sprocket (CC BY-NC 2.0 Marcel Bayani:Flickr).jpg

Fixie sprocket (CC BY-NC 2.0 Marcel Bayani:Flickr).jpg

Ever thought about a fixed? This is the time of year when continuous drive really does come into its own – a fact known to old school roadies through the ages. You can slow a fixed bike down on ice without using the brakes and while maintaining traction and power to the back wheel. That's a very good thing when its slippery.

Get down! Some people suggest that you lower your saddle slightly, so lowering your centre of gravity. The other advantages of dropping the saddle are that it's easier to get your feet down flat on the road should you suddenly need to use God's stabilisers, and less dramatically but just as usefully it makes it easier to start off sitting in the saddle when things are really slippy. That extra weight can the be difference between the getting the traction needed to move and having your back wheel slip with potential painful top tube consequences.

Did we mention it's cold? An extra layer on top of what you would normally wear in winter is a good idea. Not only is it much colder than most of us are used to but the state of the roads means you are likely to be riding slower than your normal pace, so you may not be generating the same levels of heat.

Pay particular attention to your hands and feet
Feet: overshoes, thermal socks and winter boots are all a good idea. Cold feet make for a miserable ride. It's tempting to put extra socks on but layering outside the shoes keep blood flowing to your toes and your feet warmer.

Struggle to keep your feet warm? Check out this guide to warm socks, overshoes and more.

Hands: It's even more important to keep these warm than your feet – trying to control your bike with two blocks of ice on the ends of your arms is not pleasant on any level. Good gloves are a must and glove liners – even inside thermal gloves if you feel the cold – are a good idea too, as are covers over the brake levers and grips (if your bike has flat bars). The benefit here is twofold: not only do they reduce the windchill to your hands but they also reduce the chilling effect on metal brake levers and bars with thin grips. Metal conducts the cold very efficiently, an argument if ever you needed one for upgrading to carbon levers or taking the budget option with some plastic ones. 

Shopping for gloves? Have a look at our Buyer's Guide to winter hand warmers.

On the road

Cycling Up To Derbyshire Bridge in the snow (CC BY 2.0 arg_flickr|Flickr).jpg

Cycling Up To Derbyshire Bridge in the snow (CC BY 2.0 arg_flickr|Flickr).jpg

Cycling Up To Derbyshire Bridge (CC BY 2.0 arg_flickr|Flickr)

Choose your road. You may normally keep to the quieter back roads, but they aren't usually gritted when the ice and snow hits so in terms of keeping upright they are going to be the most difficult. The main roads will be clearer, even so you still need to take care.

Keep away from the kerb. Riding too close to the kerb is not a good idea at the best of times. It limits your room for manoeuvre and it's where all the crap from the road tends to accumulate. Even on major roads, the edge may not have been well cleared of snow, and it's where water pools and freezes so in winter it becomes a real no-no. Where main roads cross minor ones the ice and snow often fans out from the side road in to the carriageway and if you are going to fall off you don't want to be doing it within head cracking range of a kerbstone.

Give yourself longer to stop. It takes longer to stop safely or even to slow down on icy surfaces. Factor that in to your calculations when approaching junctions or making any other manoeuvre that is going to involve slowing down or stopping. It's amazing how quickly most people's brain's make this adjustment.And remember it's going to take other people longer to  slow down too.

Get a disc-braked bike. If you're setting up a specific winter bike, then the extra stopping power and control of disc brakes makes them a no-brainer, and they're less affected by the wet than rim brakes.

Choose your line. If you can. The simplest way of avoiding problems when riding on  icy roads is to choose the dry line. One recent winter saw very cold but dry weather in much of the country, so the roads weren't uniformly covered in ice. Instead, it was lying in patches on the road or in gutters, or it was run-off that had frozen across the road so the dry line wasn't always a straight one. Another year, sticking to the dry line was simply impossible, because compacted snow on untreated roads had just frozen. That's when you have to cope with actually riding on the ice.

Riding over ice

Icy bike

Icy bike

Lay off the front brake. Most of us know the old mantra “your front brake is for slowing down, your back brake is for stopping” but the bit that usually gets missed out is “except on ice where you really don't want to be losing any of your front wheel's traction. At all.” Haul on the front brake going over ice and any loss of control at the front is going to be sudden and very hard to recover from.

The ideal thing to do if you find yourself riding across a stretch of icy road is to smoothly pedal through it. If you need to slow down, the ideal thing is to be on a fixed. If you're not on a fixed then gentle braking on the back is your best bet. In countries where ice is more the norm some cyclists practise making the back step out under hard braking so that they will know what to do when it happens on ice. If you do feel the need to use the front brake use it along with the back and do it so lightly that the front wheel never stops rolling. We're talking gently scrubbing off speed, as we've already said you really don't want to lose traction at the front.

If the back does step out under braking the first thing to do is stop braking, you also need to make an instant decision to either pedal, or get a foot or even both feet down.  

Choose your line. Again. Yes we already said that, but there's more. If there is a worn or dry line through the ice try to use it, but you may need to make a call here because the dry line may not be in the place you want to be on the road so you will need to proceed with caution. This situation is more likely to apply on minor roads or ones with a steep camber on which heavier vehicles have worn away the ice and snow more on one side; on these roads you would hope that other road users would also be proceeding with extreme caution too. 

Don't let your natural desire to stay on your bike at all costs cloud your judgement. The other thing to consider when choosing your line is the camber of the road. Many of our local roads have a steep off camber that's fine under normal conditions but when it's icy means that not only is the ice against you but so is gravity because you are trying to ride across a slope and your tyre's contact patch is on the side rather than directly underneath you. The best place to be from a traction point of view is on top of the camber which is right in the middle of the road. It may actually be the only place that's rideable. If it is, use your common sense. On quiet straight roads where you can see and be seen it may be doable, otherwise get off and walk to the next section where you can ride. There's no dishonour in dismounting.

Keep it smooth. Avoiding sudden changes of direction and maintain a smooth pedalling action – it really pays off. Many experienced ice riders also say that you shouldn't ride in too low a gear mainly because it's harder to keep things smooth if you are really spinning the pedals – and potentially the back wheel.

Keep pedalling. Try keeping both feet on the pedals while you are moving. However, you may want to be able to get your feet off quickly to dab the ground and help in correcting any slides. The suggested method of dealing with your front wheel sliding is to relax your ankle on the opposite side to the slide and either dip your knee out or dab your foot to drag the bike out of the slide. In our  experience though though this is only going to work at lower speeds,  so you might want to keep it down. 

Don't panic! Keep your head, neck and shoulders relaxed . What you don't want to do is to stiffen up and get twitchy… twitchiness can cause problems.

If you're properly equipped riding in the ice and snow is good fun — no, honestly, it is — but it's not compulsory. You won't get a medal for it so if you think conditions are too tough give yourself a break and get the bus/tube/walk or stay at home and noodle about on your favourite road cycling website… hopefully that's this one.

Of course, now you've read this it should start warming up any minute! In the meantime if you have any ice riding tips don't be shy - get on here and share them with the rest of us.

Plucked from the obscurity of his London commute back in the mid-Nineties to live in Bath and edit bike mags our man made the jump to the interweb back in 2006 as launch editor of a large cycling website somewhat confusingly named after a piece of navigational equipment. He came up with the idea for road.cc mainly to avoid being told what to do… Oh dear, issues there then. Tony tries to ride his bike every day and if he doesn't he gets grumpy, he likes carbon, but owns steel, and wants titanium. When not on his bike or eating cake Tony spends his time looking for new ways to annoy the road.cc team. He's remarkably good at it.

85 comments

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svalbard [4 posts] 5 years ago
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I have just returned from a trip to norway. I was amazed when arriving in Trondhiem guys on Mtb's hurtling along roads(and pavements)on shiny ice all on tungsten tipped points in the tyre.It took us all our time to stand up.
But I agree the amount of lying snow and ice in this country for a short time would be to spend a lot of cash for 2/3 weeks of the year.

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BigDonn [46 posts] 4 years ago
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Hmm - should have read this before I set off this morning! Ended up on my backside going round a corner on the junction of two major roads - at about 5mph! For some reason the council had gritted all the roads apart from this one corner and it was covered in ice! Thankfully not much damage - apart from my pride! Wishing I'd not got rid of my old knackered MTB now.

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wyadvd [128 posts] 4 years ago
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bike24.com always have stock of winter spiked tyres.

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dave atkinson [6258 posts] 4 years ago
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or you could try the instructables DIY method:

http://www.instructables.com/id/Pop-Rivet-Ice-Tires-for-Your-Road-Bike/

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scopeland [19 posts] 4 years ago
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I was always a die hard ice cycler and thought I could cope with skids. Yesterday went down twice in quick succession half a mile from home as the mercury fell below zero while out.
Walked back, hand not right so went to A and E, I have broken 2 fingers! 4 to 6 weeks off the bike too. Will stick to the turbo when it's icy from now on, going out is just not worth the risk!

 20

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barogerl [25 posts] 4 years ago
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Why not the simplest solution, ride a trike, I do and have one with a fixed wheel. Marvellous on ice, not so good when the snow is thick.

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robert_obrien [118 posts] 4 years ago
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Went out for a spin in Surrey early Saturday morning. It was a beautiful bright day and I had plenty of layers on but after about 10 miles my fingers and toes started to go numb so I headed home. While I was warming up in the kitchen the local radio informed me it was minus fourteen. I stayed in bed on Sunday. Later on I washed my bike and noted, with pleasure, that with a bucket of soapy water and a selection of brushes you can completely clean a filthy bike in under 10 minutes. Excellent!

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russyparkin [570 posts] 4 years ago
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Fringe wrote:
Bruce Kettle wrote:

I'm cycling to work at 3AM tomorrow morning (baker!) so these tips should be invaluable!!  2

jeez and i thought i had to get up early (postie)..good luck to yer  4

postie up early? you want to move to plymouth and be a postie here then.

i quite often get my post at 3.30pm / 4pm

i reckon they must stroll into work at about 11.30 am

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lolol [203 posts] 4 years ago
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Social ride mayhem today. The guy in front of me seemed to twist on the spot, it was invevitable that at least six of us were going down. Losing weight may make it easier going up hills, but that lack of padding on the hip is throbbing now! I had my glasses in my back pocket too, so they were toast, luckily my phone was on the other side. It was still a pleasure to be out though, all part of the fun.

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60kg lean keen ... [69 posts] 4 years ago
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I find that my SPDs get frozen solid!!! Ahh then the only way is down, found that pre soaking in GT85/WD helps but not if is is really cold and slushy out there. Also why is it that going down like a sack of spuds aways hurts so much more when the temp drops below 5c????

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nbrus [296 posts] 4 years ago
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Buy a pair of studded tyres ... they will last several years, so well worth it if you really must cycle in sub-zero temps. I won't go out in standard tyres when there is any risk of ice ... its far too dangerous, particularity when mixing with other traffic. Yes, I'm a wimp...  22

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formereve [61 posts] 4 years ago
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Up to now we have had no s**w or b***k i*e anywhere on my commute in  19 but I doubt it will keep that way much longer

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formereve [61 posts] 4 years ago
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Has anyone found there rear mech front mech sticking / moving slowly when changing during the cold weather? I thought mine was just muck that had sprayed up from the road but checked them both when I got back home and both were muck free and worked ok indoors once it had been in the warm room after about 30 mins.

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RuthF28 [101 posts] 4 years ago
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Yes I found that last year when it was bitterly cold for weeks on end. I also thought it was all the muck that had frozen on. It was as if my chain had gone completely solid. Horrible weather. (I have to say my mech and chain could not be described as muck free at that point!)

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bike_food [172 posts] 4 years ago
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These tips are great but after coming off a few times on ice and more recently just in the wet I can't help but tense up a little when I'm unsure of whats beneath me.
The times I have come off have been when turning so the wheels haven't been straight but I get nervous in a straight line sometimes now. Flat pedals are a really good idea, at least you have half a chance of getting a foot on the floor if things start going pear shaped and if you do need to walk for a bit you can do it easily.

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WolfieSmith [1327 posts] 4 years ago
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Every year you come put with this and every year like an admonishing parent I say "advice for riding on ice? Don't do it!!"

I came off in dry warm conditions 2 months ago at 10 mph, broke 2 ribs and was off the bike for 3 weeks. I've come off twice on ice: Once on the way to a club run when I didn't realise it was icy. Skinned an elbow but nothing broken.

The second time was on a CX bike when a mate and I thought we were on clear road and then looking back we could see that the whole road caught the light and was just ice. I came down so fast on that occasion I didn't realise I had come off until I found myself sitting in the road. Knackered helmet where I'd whacked the back of my head on the ice and a stiff neck for 3 days. So. Just leave it! It aint worth it.

On the other hand - riding on snow on a CX or mountain bike is safe when it's new and lots of fun - so go ahead with that. Just wrap up warm.

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jackh [121 posts] 4 years ago
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@MercuryOne

"Every year you come put with this and every year like an admonishing parent I say "advice for riding on ice? Don't do it!!""

You don't sound like a dull parent to me... I agree completely!

There is only one way to ride safely in snow and ice. That is off-road with properly studded ice tyres. On-road is foolish with most car owners in the UK choosing not to install even winter tyres, let alone carry snow chains or the like.

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monty dog [460 posts] 4 years ago
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I was riding down a minor road on the North Downs last winter on my CX with studded tyres, it was sheet ice - a Range Rover came around the corner, skidded as it braked and ran into the opposite verge. The trouble is 4x4 drivers don't appreciate that big, heavy vehicles are harder to slow down.

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Lance Bumstrong [21 posts] 3 years ago
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WOT!? You guys re-tweeting your own words from last year? I'm just noticing all the 2011 dates on those posts- and also the fact that it JUST got posted and is loaded with out-of-date replies. Oh well. May I suggest BAR-MITS, and a straight jacket! Seriously, it is cold up my way for a long period- Scotland! The past month has been icy roads- some we have had to turn back around on. Two weeks ago I was pulling in to the club meeting point, hit black ice, and cracked down hard on my hip. No matter what you do- ICE is DODGY! Not just because you can crash, but others can crash INTO you. Be careful FOLKS !!  18

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purplemadwoman [32 posts] 3 years ago
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Yup, I get quite nervous now after coming off on ice a couple of times in the past.  7 Crazy really, considering I've been commuter riding for over ten years now. Keep telling myself to pull myself together and stop being so stupid - I know it means that I'm more likely to have a 'moment'.  7 Ah well, just got to keep riding through it and hopefully one day my head will win!  1

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paulfg42 [393 posts] 3 years ago
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Found myself on a large patch of black ice last week. Tried to keep it slow and steady but the front wheel slid and I've ended up cracking a bone in my elbow. A bit of a freak according to the doc in A&E who was a cyclist himself but I think I'll be leaving the bike in the garage next time (although I might not have fared much better as a pedestrian given the state of the pavements).

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Raleigh [1667 posts] 3 years ago
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There is only one bike that can tackle this.

FIXED FAT BIKE

4 inches of rubber, those tyres weigh 2 kilos each.

THAT'S RIGHT I SAID FOUR INCHES

Imagine these with studded tyres.

http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://fat-bike.com/wp-content/upl...

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Colin Peyresourde [1773 posts] 3 years ago
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I've listed my own set of guidance for ice and snow conditions below:

1. Get permission to ride from neighbour and/or property occupier.
2. Lay down turbo trainer mat.
3. Change in blue turbo trainer tyre
4. Set-up turbo trainer.
5. Don't forget to set up the circulator fan.
6. Ensure that all paintings are firmly placed and don't catch the fan draft, dropping on you and smashing expensive whiskey everywhere.

I was supposed to be doing the Chieveley ride this morning but they cancelled due to the adverse conditions.  7

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Simmo72 [617 posts] 3 years ago
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And then there is black ice where you will just fall off however good you are resulting in a bruise up your entire leg and knackered tendons, from now on if its icy I get on the rollers and accept you can't ride safely 365 days a year.

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TheHatter [770 posts] 3 years ago
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Read this Sunday, thought I be sensible and switch to my fat tyred hybrid for my 10 mile commute on Monday and fell nice and heavily, with more than a little comedy, at around the 9.99 mile mark.

Very nervous ride home in the afternoon as more of the white stuff came down. Now looking for a reasonably price turbo.

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Cosmicned [26 posts] 3 years ago
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REALLY glad I spent a few hours fixing up my old 80's el-cheapo steel MTB a few weeks back - huge wheels, vast knobbly tyres, & stupidly low gearing - done me proper proud on my 10 mile commute in the snow today - deffo way quicker than the car's I passed, - what price an old dodgy BSO now eh?  4

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NorthernRouleur [24 posts] 3 years ago
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Schwalbe Ice Spikers. Bought in a summer sale 4 years ago, just before the latest spell of hard winters.
Out tomorrow for 60km off road. It's become something of a regular winter ritual and is about the most fun you can have with your clothes on!

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Phytoramediant [23 posts] 3 years ago
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Icy cobbles.
Almost impossible to even push the thing without it rocketing onto it's side - never mind RIDE it.
Oh - and:
Beware of slalom-ing cars. In my experience, they'll rather slide into a cyclist than into another car. We're softer.
Be careful out there people - and good luck!
Happy 2013.

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richdirector [68 posts] 3 years ago
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Haha - just got my Schwalbe spiked tyres for next weeks strathpuffer 24 - going to glen tress Monday so hopefully it will all work  19

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marekbuk [2 posts] 3 years ago
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Anyone out there tried the trick of putting a load of tyraps (nylon cable ties) around the tyre and rim? - read this somewhere last year - sounds like it should work

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