The Adventure Syndicate

This time in two weeks I’ll be sitting on a northbound train on my way up to Inverness where, the following Saturday, seven of us will set off at 6am in an attempt to ride the entire North Coast 500 route in under 36 hours. That’s 500 miles in a day and a half. Scottish miles, at that.

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And why are we doing this? Well, partly just because that’s what we do. Among us will be Rickie Cotter, recently home from riding the length of New Zealand in 12 days, who also happens to be the British 24-hour mountainbike champion. And Gaby Leveridge, a veteran of the Transcontinental who turned pro last year. And Lee Craigie and Anne Ewing, who both represented Scotland in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. And Zara and Jo of Pedal Power, whose tartan lycra I watched storming ahead of me in January’s Strathpuffer mountainbike race. And, er, me. We are all, in our various ways, hooked on long-distance cycling, and this struck us as a very good way to spend a weekend.

But there’s another reason. We’re be doing this ride to launch The Adventure Syndicate: a collective of extraordinary cyclists who aim to challenge what other people – particularly other women – think they are capable of. We’ve thought long and hard about how to do this, and concluded that inspiration is only the first step. And there’s no guarantee that ‘inspiring people’ even works. It’s impossible to quantify, and for every person who reads my blog and decides to set out on a bike journey of their own, there may be another for whom inspiration is swiftly followed by the despair I myself used to feel when I read about other people’s adventures, and thought ‘oh, I wish I were that sort of person, but I’m not’. (It turns out I was all along.)

We realized that it’s important how you inspire people. It’s no good portraying a gang of muscular heroes confidently overcoming every obstacle. As I’ve discovered writing this blog over the years, people relate to you a lot more when you show them your doubts and fears, your weaknesses and failures – as well as the glow of triumph and faint disbelief when you get to the end of a journey you never thought you’d complete, and scale heights you never thought you’d reach. So as The Adventure Syndicate we’ll be sharing our adventures on our website as they take place – and showing you how it works from the inside: the fear and boredom and doubt and mild discomfort that run alongside the power and the beauty.

And on the North Coast 500 ride we’ll be sharing the journey as we go. Just like I did in the Transcontinental, we’ll be carrying a tracker, so you can see exactly where we are, work out how fast (or slow) we’re going, and tweet your own live commentary when we take a wrong turn and end up lost in the Highlands (that won’t happen). You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

And you can follow us in real life too. Because one of the founding principles of The Adventure Syndicate is that, as well as inspiring people and showing them the reality of our adventures, we’ll be working hands-on to help them take on their own challenges – whatever those might be. So, starting this autumn, we’ll be running a series of talks, workshops, training camps and get-togethers, where we can actually meet people, figure out what obstacles are standing in their way, and work together to overcome them.

And on the North Coast 500…? You can literally follow us. All the way, if you like, though if you’re that strong a rider, we’d appreciate you taking a turn up front. But if you live along the route, or fancy a weekend in Scotland, get on your bike and come and ride with us for a while. We’ll be aiming for an average speed of around 13mph, which will be hard for us to keep up all weekend, but perfectly reasonable for a couple of hours of your Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. Bring your friends, bring your family, bring your local cycling club. If you don’t fancy cycling, come and throw jelly babies at us from the side of the road, or give us a toot if you see us from your car.

We’ll be aiming to get back to Inverness before 6pm on Sunday the 15th May. Come and witness us slumped in the corner of Velocity Café and Bicycle Workshop, dribbling into our tea – or, better still, intercept us somewhere on the A9 and help swell the ranks for the grand arrival into Inverness. All are welcome, for 1 mile or 100. We’re looking forward to meeting you.

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And in the meantime? Well, there’s a lot of work to be done. The logistics of getting seven women and their bicycles around the perimeter of Northern Scotland, and keeping them reasonably intact, are far more complicated than I expected. (500 miles is a lot of jelly babies.) And we all have our own fears about the ride. Or at least, I have enough fears for all seven of us.

This is one of the major things I’ve learned over the last decade or so – you never stop being afraid. In March 2006 I cycled to work for the first time (7 miles), and spent most of the preceding night unable to sleep, anxiously scanning a TFL cycling map, over and over and again. In October 2009 I worked my first day as a cycle courier, terrified that I would make a mistake, that people would laugh at me, that I would be fired within a few hours. In September 2011 I set off to cycle round the world, feeling stupid and unready, and scared of just about everything there was to be scared of – and you’ll know, from reading this blog, that I had a wonderful time. It does get easier, in the sense that, although the fear never goes away, you come to recognize it as part of the process, and see it as something to be gotten through, rather than an insurmountable obstacle.

Last summer, when I told him how frightened I was of the Transcontinental, my father laughed at me.

“Oh come on, this is what you do! You should know that by now. You start off thinking ‘oh I’m so scared, I don’t know if I can do it’ – and then you take the world by storm. It always happens that way.”

But what if it doesn’t? I didn’t finish the Transcon, after all, even though I proved to be much better at it than I expected. And on the North Coast 500 I’ll be lining up alongside professional cyclists – women who have been doing this a lot longer than me, at a much higher level. What if this time I don’t take the world by storm?

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On rape and racism

“But isn’t it dangerous? You know, as a woman?”

This is one of the questions I’m asked again and again, when I tell people about my travels, and I’m getting more and more impatient in my responses. It’s not only that I’ve had to answer it a few too many times – it’s that, every time I get asked it, I realise more clearly that it’s a question founded on racism and xenophobia: to put it very bluntly, the assumption that as soon as I leave my own country, I am constantly at risk of being raped by foreigners.

And it’s getting worse. Over the past few months I’ve come across a few other female cyclists who have admitted to changing or cancelling their own plans to cross continents (including Europe), because of the perceived risk of travelling through these areas “as a Western woman”, or of “being the only white woman for miles around”. Now, I am not going to blame these women individually, any more than I’m going to blame the well-meaning people who like to label me ‘brave’ and ‘intrepid’ for going to places where the only thing that really differentiates me from those I meet is our skin tone and style of dress. They have made careful (though flawed) decisions regarding their own safety, much as I have done countless times during my travels, based on the information and advice I had to hand.

The problem is, information and advice are always filtered through the prejudices and beliefs of the people imparting them. A lot of people told me I was foolish for wanting to cycle through the Icelandic interior in winter, without taking into account my previous experience (considerable), and their own lack of it. (Thankfully I met the wonderful Emil, who trusted me to judge the risks for myself, and sent me off on some of the most brilliant days’ cycling of my life to date.) I spent months agonising over whether to travel through Balochistan, trying to weed through all of the (mostly very negative) advice I was given, most of which seemed to come from people who had never set foot in Iran or Pakistan. It was only when I got closer to the area in question that people (like the estimable Akbar, in Bam) were able to explain the risks to me based on concrete (and recent) knowledge, and to tell me that I would, in all likelihood, be fine – and I was. (And then, a couple of years later, I realised very belatedly that, even though I had survived, travelling through Balochistan had been a bad idea after all, more because of the risk to my hosts and escorts than myself. You see? It’s complicated.)

So let’s look at the prejudices and beliefs that are currently causing women to think twice about travelling solo. Doubtless they’ll have read the news coverage of the Cologne attacks at New Year, and they (and their concerned friends and family members) will have been affected, by the creeping tide of same-old-same-old racist propaganda that tells us white women are at ever-increasing risk of being raped by dark-skinned men, and it is the duty of white men to defend them, while they keep themselves patiently under lock and key, waiting for that far-off day when the world’s dangers have been entirely neutralized, and it is finally safe to leave the house.

This assumption is so troubling (especially when I see it in people I know and respect, or notice it in myself), that it’s difficult to know where to begin unravelling it. Shall I start by reminding you that despite the political myth of white women’s vulnerability, women of colour have historically been much more often sexually fetishised and exploited, and no one seems to make as much of a fuss about that? Or shall I point out that, despite all the current hysteria, refugees are still far more likely to have crimes committed against them, and perhaps if we’re so worried about women being attacked we should do something about the safety of the millions of refugee women, who are at far greater risk of violence, sometimes from the very policemen who are meant to be protecting them? Or shall I mention that, on average, two women are killed in the UK every week by their domestic partner, and that around 90% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim? (So perhaps, next time a female friend of yours announces she is getting married, or moving in with her boyfriend, you should sit her down and have a serious talk with her. Is she aware of the risks? Does she really want to go through with this?)

Shall I alert you to the fact that actually a lot of men are raped too (there are 120,000 male rape survivors in England and Wales alone), and offer my anecdotal evidence that most of the men I know who have travelled long distances by bike have at some point been mugged, or attacked, or threatened in some way? (I never have been, in all my years of travelling.) Shall I tell you of all the times I have been groped or flashed in my home country, in the course of my day-to-day life, in motorway service stations, in parks, in crowded bars, on public transport? (I think most women will have similar stories.)

For god’s sake, let’s stop painting our own society as a haven of peace and safety, which it most definitely isn’t, and by the same token, let’s stop turning the rest of the world into a no-go zone, full of dangerous criminals. Rape, and sexual assault, and all the other violent crimes, happen everywhere. And that’s appalling. But what’s also appalling is how much our worlds will shrink if we don’t question the beliefs and prejudices we’re being fed by mass media and popular culture. Soon we’ll be too afraid ever to leave the country. Women are raped even in popular tourist destinations like Spain and Thailand, after all. Then we’ll read all the stories about commuters being groped on buses and trains, and decide it’s safer if we never leave the small town we grew up in. Then we’ll hear about teenagers being flashed on their way home from school, and we’ll end up never leaving our own home (where nearly 40% of rapes take place).

It is now more important than ever that we (all of us, not just women) travel beyond our normal boundaries, use the opportunities we have to go out into the world, and tell everyone else what we find there: that human beings are, with a few minor variations, more or less the same anywhere you go. That’s to say, mostly harmless, usually friendly, often extremely kind, occasionally irritating or unpleasant, and very occasionally violent and dangerous. Because you know how it works, don’t you? The more we isolate ourselves, the more fearful and suspicious we will become of anyone we consider ‘other’. And the more brutal we believe ‘they’ are, the more brutal we ourselves will become. You’ll remember the hilarious (but troubling) graphics back in 2014, that showed how British people living in areas of lower ethnic diversity were far more likely to support the anti-immigration policies of parties like UKIP. And it’s in the more remote areas of the world that I’ve encountered the greatest ignorance and prejudice – the otherwise friendly Alaskan who had a sign on his door that said “armed infidel”, in English and Arabic; the Xinjiang petrol-station attendant who couldn’t stop giggling and touching my hair and skin.

Please stop asking me whether it’s dangerous for me to travel alone, and think about the prejudices and flawed assumptions that lie behind that very question – which must be responsible for countless women reconsidering, revising, and even abandoning their travel plans completely. It loses sight of the extraordinary privilege of voluntary, independent travel. Really, you should congratulate me on how lucky I am – to be able to move across continents for the joy and the challenge of it, rather than because I have to. To be welcomed in the places I visit, rather than treated with hostility and suspicion. To have a passport that allows me visa-free entry to more countries than any other, and to have a powerful government ready to pull out all the stops to rescue me if something does go wrong. To command a level of respect I haven’t had to work as hard for as many other people do, and to know my complaints and accusations (if I ever have cause to make any) will be listened to and believed. To be educated, financially independent, physically strong and able, and to have grown up in a society that, despite its flaws, has enabled me to go out into the world and have my adventures. When you look at my privilege, compared to that of many of the people I have travelled among, it is beyond tasteless to suggest that I am the vulnerable one.

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Transcontinental: Into the Alps

Conscious now of my army of spectators, I cycled on towards Sisteron, remembering ruefully that riding with a tracker comes with as many disadvantages as it does advantages. During last winter’s journey through Alaska and Canada my father had (quite predictably) become obsessed with the hourly updates from my YB tracker, and even started a spreadsheet, which he updated every day, with my distance cycled, average speed, temperature range, estimated time to finish, and various other arcane measurements. I didn’t know of the spreadsheet’s existence until the final month of the trip, and I was glad of this, because once I knew he was watching I would curse him on difficult days, knowing that he’d be sitting there at his comfortable desk, thinking ‘why is she going so slowly?’, with no idea of the headwinds and unforgiving gradients and exhausted muscles that were reducing my progress to a crawl.

And now, thinking of all the dotwatchers sitting at their desks and armchairs, checking my progress on their phone as they sat on the bus, or idled away their business meetings, or sipped their post-ride coffee, I felt uncomfortably exposed. Everyone could see I’d foolishly carried on through the mountains instead of following the rest of the pack along the lower route, and there was really no way of pretending that this was somehow part of my strategy, since I was clearly wasting a lot of time and energy by doing so.

The day began to heat up. Initially the eastern side of Ventoux had seemed cooler and more hospitable than the western, but now I realised this was just because it had still been relatively early in the morning – having started at 4am, I felt as if it must be the middle of the day by the time I stopped for my email check, but of course it was really only breakfast time. By the time I rolled into Sisteron my head was humming and throbbing with the heat, and I had long ago emptied my three litres of water. I stumbled into a small supermarket and, with the flimsy logic of the hungry shopper, came out clutching a two-litre bottle of water, an ice lolly, a bar of hazelnut Milka and two large soft peaches. The water, eased down with a nuun tablet, disappeared into my grateful body as quickly as it would have been absorbed by a patch of dried-out soil. The fruit and ice and chocolate followed suit, and soon I was back on the bike, casting barely a glance at the huge serrated cliffs overlooking the city, in keen pursuit of the Transcontinental peleton, which I now assumed I had fallen off the back of, thanks to my unnecessary detour.

But, just as I had the previous afternoon, I found myself alternating between energy and sloth, longing to stop and rest in every field I passed, giving in to my baser impulses every time I spied a petrol station or anywhere selling ice lollies. It was just too hot, I thought to myself as I sat on the pavement, outside yet another tabac (this time in Espinasses), throbbing feet resting on the shaded pavement on either side of my discarded shoes and a small pile of juice cans and flavoured ice. It was a shame Juliana was no longer in the race. She thrives in heat. I much prefer the coolness and freshness of an English springtime, which I most certainly wasn’t going to find here.

I looked up just in time to see another rider flash past me. For various reasons, it was always immediately obvious to me whether someone was a fellow Transcon racer, or just a local roadie out for a spin. And this was very clearly one of the former. He had Apidura bags on his bike, and he was wearing one of the bright coral Rapha jerseys that I’d last seen on Leo, as we lined up together in Geraardsbergen (just over three days ago – it felt like a lifetime). Could this possibly be Leo himself? Could I somehow have overtaken him? Was I about to run into a friend? I got back on the bike and set off in pursuit, wondering if anyone who knew both of us might happen to be watching my dot slowly gaining on his on the tracker page.

We were approaching Lac de Serre-Ponçon, which I knew from my route planning was one of the race’s more inconvenient obstacles. To get round it, you could either stay north of the lake, following a small road whose abrupt twists and turns suggested it would involve a lot of climbing, or you could stick to the main road that went south of the lake, but took you a long way out of your way, and added an extra 15km. I can’t remember which route I’d programmed into my Garmin. By this stage I was only keeping half an eye on it anyway, having failed to develop a deep and trusting relationship in the short time we had had together before the race. So when I saw the-man-who-might-be-Leo take the left fork (towards the shorter, wigglier road), I followed him without hesitation. If nothing else, this meant there’d be no more embarrassing Twitter commentary on Chappell not running with the herd.

The road immediately ramped upwards, and began to wind itself along the edge of the cliffs than plunged down towards the lake. I relished its hairpins, for the sense of progress as I ticked each one off, and for the alternate shade and sunlight that gave me some small relief to savour or to strive for. Up ahead of me I could see the coral jersey of the-man-who-might-be-Leo. I wasn’t losing him; in fact, I might even be gaining on him. Down to our right, a huge dam swept down into the valley. The-man-who-might-be-Leo pulled in at a small viewpoint to admire it (and probably also to take advantage of the shade of the trees), and as I joined him I discovered that he wasn’t Leo (I hadn’t really expected to catch him), but he was Kristjan, who had disappeared down Mont Ventoux the previous night, while I camped on the veranda of Chalet Reynard. It turned out he had slept somewhere near Sault – and that I’d probably even drawn ahead of him at some point, before I delayed myself with that pointless (but enjoyable) mountain detour. He loved descending, he told me. That made sense then. I told him I much prefer climbing, where at least you have some control over the bike.

We befriended a Scottish rider who’d been enjoying the same patch of shade (looks like I hadn’t dropped behind after all), and carried on up the climb within sight of each other. It wasn’t only a climb though. In order to traverse the various spurs and outcrops that overlooked the lake, the road rose up, then plunged downward again, losing us all the height we had so painstakingly gained. I watched Kristjan plummeting down the hill ahead of me, fearlessly racing towards an oncoming van (which prudently got out of his way), crept downward in his wake, and then set about catching him again on the next climb.

I failed. By the summit of the climb I was within sight of him and the Scottish rider, but then all of a sudden my energy failed me, and I pulled over in the shade, sat myself down by the side of the road, and calmly despaired of ever getting any further. For a few minutes I just sat there, forearms resting on knees, eyes staring blankly at the hot tarmac, knowing that in a few more minutes’ time I’d scrape together the reserve to get back on the bike and keep going, and hoping that somehow it would get easier, that I’d be able to recapture the joy with which I’d spent those few hours of the morning, skimming my way along undulating roads with a cool breeze playing against my skin. Now there was no breeze, and the heat was so oppressive that my skin throbbed and my head thumped. I was probably dehydrated again, I thought, gloomily, despite the litres of water I’d sunk in Sisteron.

Wearily I got back on the bike, wearily I pedalled my way up and down the remainder of that fiendish road, crossed the lake, and sat for half an hour on a restaurant terrace, filling myself with spag bol and baguette and tap water, and envying myself the purity of my struggle up Ventoux, which had already retreated into personal legend, leaving me with the messy and compromised business of an unfinished ride.

Eventually I pressed on, towards Embrun, where the road signposted towards Briançon was also very clearly signposted as being forbidden to bicycles (and tractors), and I was obliged to follow a smaller one, which wound up and down the hillside through the town, rather than following the valley floor. Another couple of racers chose differently, and I watched them shoot off up the valley, not finding out until two weeks later that they would have received a hefty time penalty for disobeying the rules of the road.

The road climbed and climbed – no longer the vicious switchbacks I had endured that afternoon, but in consecutive ramps, so that I had the curious impression I was going upstairs – and as night slowly fell and the sun sank behind the mountains, I noticed that the heels of my hands were becoming sore. To my dismay, when I removed my gloves, I found that they were pink and raw, and had the beginnings of blisters, and knew that, no matter how carefully I gripped the bars from now on, there was no way that the next few dozen hours of cycling wouldn’t eventually break the skin, and leave me riding on bare flesh.

After a few more merciless miles, I rolled into Briançon, my strength and resolve flagging, knowing this would be a night where I caved in and found myself a hotel, rather than spreading out my bivvy bag in the corner of a field. Some of the men I’d spoken to along the way hadn’t spent a single night outdoors, and while I was convinced this would cost me far more than I could afford in both time and money, right now I was past caring about either.

It was around 11pm, and although I searched high and low, there wasn’t a single hotel that was open, or had anyone on reception whose attention (and sympathy) I could plaintively attract. Grumpily, I resigned myself to another hour or two of cycling, a chilly berth somewhere in the mountains, and a hungry push on towards Sestriere, nearly 1,000m higher, in the early hours of the morning. Even more grumpily, I ignored the catcalls of a nearby table of Englishmen, sitting outside one of Briançon’s late-night bars.

They weren’t dissuaded.

“Hey! Yes, you!” shouted one of them, waving me over.

I am never less amenable than when summoned by drunken men outside bars, and was just about to turn tail and ride for the hills when one of them shouted

“Are you with the race?”

Oh. I turned back their way, and rode cautiously towards them, still half-assuming they were a bunch of drunken louts for whom I’d be part of the evening’s entertainment.

Turns out they weren’t. They were mountain bikers, on holiday in the area, who had been sitting at the same table all evening, eating and drinking after a long day on the trails, and had quickly noticed the sporadic stream of tired-looking roadies passing through the town. After flagging one down and asking what was going on, they had started buying them beer and pizza (on the table next to them was a huge pile of empty boxes). I was easily persuaded to join them for a bit, and to accept a glass of lager and a cheese-and-ham sandwich, since the pizzeria was now closed for the night, along with the town’s hotels.

The beer went down surprisingly well, and I found myself in a chattier mood than I expected, probably because of having spent the last few days with little more than the bike for company. We compared notes on our lives and jobs, and I discovered that these weren’t just any mountain bikers – they were the organisers of the Trans-Provence, a mountain bike race so well known that even I had heard of it.

“Is there anything else you need?” one of them asked.

“I think a nice comfortable hedge is next on the agenda” I told them, explaining that I had arrived in town too late to find myself a hotel room. My new friends exchanged glances.

“Well… we’ve got a spare bed in our hotel room. I mean, we’ve got a bed each, but there’s a van one of us can sleep in. Would you be up for that? I promise we’re all totally non-weird – I’m married, and he’s…”

They continued in this vein long after I had accepted their offer, assuring me of their non-weirdness all the way to the hotel (it was one of the ones I had failed to get into earlier on), while I assured them in turn that they were making a terrible mistake by allowing a smelly ultra-racer into their sanctuary, but if they were really sure…

And then they left me in peace to have my first shower in four days and well over 1,000km (I washed my hair with the tips of my fingers, not wanting to disturb the blisters on my palms), insisted on adding a couple of stickers to my bike, and fell asleep as quickly as I did, all three of us (and no doubt Plons out in the van) snoring our way through till my alarm went off at 3.30am and I reluctantly crawled out of bed, fumbled about in the dark for my things, whispered goodbye and stumbled out into the still-dark streets to start another day of riding.

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By the way…

I’ve written a book. I thought you might like to know. And if you want to buy it, it’s available from all good bookshops (and probably a few bad bookshops too, if such a thing exists). I strongly urge you to support your local independent bookshop, but if you’re short of cash, the Guardian Bookshop are […]

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Transcontinental: Joining the dots

I lingered at the top of Ventoux for half an hour or so, savouring the glow and the malt loaf and enjoying the company of friends after so long on the road on my own. Every now and then a gust of wind would shake the van, and we’d all remember – and marvel – […]

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The Kindness of Strangers

And now for something completely different. Well, not completely different. I’d like to invite all of you, warmly and persuasively, to come to an event I’m speaking at in London on the 30th of September, to raise money (and collect winter clothing) for the refugees at Calais. Of all the talks I’ll give this year, […]

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Transcontinental: Night on bald mountain

Ventoux needs little introduction, but in case you’re one of the few non-cyclists who read this blog, you should know that it’s one of the most iconic climbs of European cycling, notorious for claiming the life of British Tour de France rider Tom Simpson in 1967 (though alcohol and amphetamines also played a part); feared for its unrelenting gradient and […]

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Transcontinental: Until it hurts

Have to pee, holding it as long as possible. Last two toilet breaks had me in tears. Oh the terrible burning of saddle sores. #TCR2015 It appeared Juliana, now a long way ahead of me, was having a tough time of it. During my sporadic Macdonalds breaks (probably a lot less sporadic than hers) I […]

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Transcontinental: On the right track

For the first twelve hours of the ride (race, it’s a race, Chappell), I barely stopped smiling. Because, after all, cycling along quiet roads through the cool night air, with no human company beyond some occasional twinkling red lights ahead of me, is one of the things I love most in the world. Excellent photograph by Schollaert Xavier […]

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Transcontinental: The Start Line

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start. And it was a very good start. I had been slightly mournful, I think, that I hadn’t got my act together to enter this race in one of the years it set off from London. It would have been surreal, and rather magical, […]

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