Are stiff soled riding shoes not only unnecessary but potentially harmful?

Based on my article last week about Clipless Pedals Driving Away New Riders I started to get a lot of questions from riders about the myths and half truths surrounding them. These lies – which are repeated hundreds of times a day in bike shops, trail heads and internet forums – are designed to create a need for clipless pedals in the minds of riders that simply does not exist in reality.

Because of this difference a stiff soled shoe is unnecessary and, one could argue, actually counterproductive from a natural movement point of view.

One of the more persistent myths is the need for a stiff soled shoe while for “pedaling efficiency”. Most riders get confused on the subject because they assume that since clipless pedals have stiff soles, they need stiff soled shoes for their flat pedals as well.

The problem is that we think that clipless pedals have stiff soles strictly for performance reasons when, in fact, it is an attempt to solve the problem of how unnatural the clipless pedal interface is with the foot.

In short, you do not need a stiff soled shoe when riding and, in fact, it can actually cause long term problems.

While having a stiff sole can help in some situations that I’ll go over later, in general there is a huge difference between the foot and pedal interface on flats vs. clipless pedals – on flat pedals your foot is able to drive into the pedal itself while with clipless pedals the sole of the shoe must provide the platform for your foot to drive into.

The reason that you must have a stiff soled shoe for clipless pedals is that the attachment point with the pedals is too small to drive your foot into (your foot is actually touching less than one square inch on the pedals) so the soles of the shoe itself become that platform your foot needs. Without a stiff sole providing some sort of platform your foot would be forced to balance on and drive into the attachment point itself, which would be very uncomfortable and inefficient. The stiff sole acts as an intermediary of sorts, allowing the foot to drive into it and then transferring that force into the attachment point with the pedal.

On flats a very different dynamic is allowed to take place.

Because the actual interface with the pedal is so large (you have several square inches of actual contact space with flat pedals) your foot can use it directly for support and to drive into. Just like running, your foot is allowed to naturally interact with the surface it is touching instead of relying on an artificial means of support and energy transfer. Because of this difference a stiff soled shoe is unnecessary and, one could argue, actually counterproductive from a natural movement point of view.

Your body is designed to let the foot articulate as needed so it can interact directly with the ground and this doesn’t change when you sit on a bike. When you stiffen the sole of the shoe to act as the support for the foot you also change how the foot can articulate – the stiffer the sole the more you are “locking” the foot into place and interfering with how it would naturally articulate. You can not change how one joint moves without placing more stress on some other joints and over time that locked up foot can come back to haunt you.

Now, with all that said a stiff soled shoe can improve performance and safety in certain situations. For example, I like to ride with 5-10 Impacts when riding downhill or freeride type trails because the thicker, stiffer sole will provide more cushioning if I have to eject mid-air and come down hard on my feet. I don’t like them as much for trail riding because I find the sole too stiff for lots of pedaling and my feet feel more comfortable with a more minimal soled shoe like the 5-10 Spitfires or Freeriders.

A stiff soled shoe can also provide a more efficient power transfer into the pedals for racing situations – but at the expense of altering how your foot moves which can cause problems over the long run. While the idea that the same shoes that make you faster can also hurt you over the long run is new in cycling, it is not a new idea in sports. In fact, I originally learned of this idea that shoes that can increase performance can also cause long term overuse injuries while running track in high school.

In the track world we all knew that even though your racing spikes made you run faster, you didn’t train in them. They were for race day and high performance practices (which were rare) because the same things that those shoes did to give you a short term performance increase on race day would tear you down eventually if you used them too much in training.

In other words, just because something made us faster didn’t make it “better” and understanding how to juggle what would allow us to train injury free with what would make use faster was part of the game. The truth is that having a super stiff sole on a riding shoe is not only unnecessary, it is potentially harmful if used exclusively over the long run. Find a pedal and shoe system (flats and 5-10’s work real well) for your everyday riding that allows your foot to move freely and drive directly into the pedal interface itself and save the stiff soled shoes for specific racing/ performance applications.

If you have any questions or opinions on this I’d love to hear them, just post a comment below. Also, your help in spreading the word is greatly appreciated so please click one of the Like or Share buttons below if you liked this article.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

The Catalyst Pedal

The Catalyst PedalThe Catalyst Pedal from Pedaling Innovations is the world’s best performing, most comfortable pedal. It is the first pedal that looks first at how the foot and lower leg optimally move then applies that insight to the bike. The result is a patent pending design that supports your foot the way that nature intended, increasing power, efficiency, stability and comfort. Backed with a no questions asked 30 day money back guarantee, this is the pedal that gives you the performance of clipless pedals with the fun, safety and comfort of flat pedals.
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  1. Cindy says:

    I think it is important to note here that performance in a shoe that is too soft is also not good. I recently did a short fun off road swim/bike/run and used my running shoes for the both the ride and run. Once out on the trail I was very sorry that I did this. I did not feel any connection with my bike. I normally ride in 5 – 10’s. Running shoes on flat pedals do not cut it!

    Reply • September 25 at 9:52 am
  2. sb66er says:

    Just yesterday after driving an hour to a trailhead realized I had forgotten my 5.10s and i had to wear my stiffER soled racing shoes (Mavic Alpine XL) with my flat pedals. I took off the cleats to minimize any metal to metal slippage; the Mavics have a much better rubber sole than most clipless pedal designed shoes.

    It was very evident that even though the shoes were stiffer, I was slower by stop watch on every lap of the trail than with the 5.10s. I did not have the power transfer from my legs into the pedals and felt less in control of the bike.

    Reply • September 25 at 10:08 am
  3. Tracy says:

    I started using flats at the end of last season. I was pretty unnerved at first because I started riding using clip less pedals a few years ago. After a few weeks I felt pretty comfortable and I’m still learning things about how to keep my feet driving into the pedals during different maneuvers. I had to send my shoes in for warranty and put my clip less pedals back on for a week. Yikes! I couldn’t wait to get the flats back. The first thing I noticed was that my knees hurt, yep knees (mine are high mileage). I also didn’t like how I felt like my pedal was attached to my toes which made me want to pedal in a toe down position and this felt less balanced. I also didn’t want to do the skill drills that I usually enjoy messing with for a few minutes at the end of a ride(looping out while clipped in just stinks! ) so I’m happily, back on flats!

    Reply • September 25 at 1:43 pm
  4. Guthrie says:

    Recommendations needed. Looking at the free rider or the xvi version. Free rider is on sale for sixty and xvi is eighty five.. Since you have ridden both, what do you thnk?

    Reply • September 25 at 9:23 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Either one is good. I am riding the Freeriders again and while the XVI shoes are a bit better, I’m not sure it is worth the extra money.

      Reply • September 26 at 12:43 pm
  5. Jonathan says:

    Hi James, and everyone else!

    Well, In the last couple of days I have been thinking over a lot about Flats and Clipless pedals, and after you read this post, I hope that you can take the time and answer all of our questions, doubts and fears James, we have relied on you to help us out a lot, and after some time of following your training, advice, and so on, there is a point in time once we get to a certain level of performance in which new questions rise and, for me and many racers, I believe now is the time.
    So, I would like to label this post as “Flats vs Clipless FOR RACE ONLY”

    James, you must know there are many racers that look at you for guidance, and for training, and all the advice you have given about flats and clipless pedals, to me and many other racers I know, has proven true and spot on with all your explanations and development of new stretches and workouts.

    Nevertheless, we have also noticed that all the training we are doing, and all the workouts you put out, are very much Bias towards Flat pedals. In other words, we have through personal experience, following your advice, noticed a great performance increase with all your workouts while riding FLAT pedals, and consequently a sharp decrease in how comfortable, strong, and able we used to be in CLIPLESS pedals. I will explain further on this topic after some of the self aware points that I will mention below when comparing Flats pedals and Clipless pedals.

    Flat Pedals strengths:
    1) Our foot is able to move freely
    2) We can effectively use the strongest part of our feet to drive, pedal, jump, land, on the bike
    3) We have developed our feet sensitivity, so much, that we can even feel the slightest change or shift on any one of the pins on the pedal with respect to where our shoe is on top of the pedal, so we can feel if the shoe is too much towards the right of the pedal, or too close to the crank, and so on without looking down at all.
    4) It has freed any stress from out other joints like our knees
    5) We can move and re-position our hips on the bike with great ease.

    Flat pedal weaknesses:
    1) Flat pedals are 100% Posture dependent, in other words, you can only ride well with flat pedals if you have a strong core that will enable you to keep a correct posture and stand, on the bike, at all times no matter what the terrain ahead of you is like
    2) You must be aware of your feet and what they are doing, specially on rough terrain at high speeds. Otherwise your feet will bounce off at some point
    3) Flat pedals are prone to throwing you off balance when:
    a) A drive train miss-shift happens
    b) The rear wheel slips while going uphill
    c) Your heels tip forward (which goes back to posture)

    4) Having devastating consequences if you ever smack a rock hard while pedaling at speed (We know from personal experience)

    As for Clipless, please see below.

    Clipless strengths:
    1) Because clipless pedals secure your foot to the pedal,
    a)Not prone to throwing you off balance on miss shifts, tire slips,
    nor tipping your heels forward
    2) clipless are not posture dependent

    3) you can ignore what your feet are doing

    4) Not prone to devastating consequences when smacking into rocks, because your foot is attached to the pedal, thus you can pedal over rough terrain with more confidence

    Clipless weaknesses:

    1) Your feet are locked in, and you cannot move them to compensate for balance as the terrain ahead of you changes

    2) You loose mobility in your hips, it is much much harder to move your hips about the bike, with your feet locked into a single position, and applying all the concepts that we have learned from training with MTB STS.

    3) We have yet to find a clipless shoe that can bring the cleat more towards the center of your foot where it is strongest, all clipless shoes cleat positions are bias towards the ball of the foot, which is almost unbearable after riding with flats

    4) Because of #2, cornering becomes a big challenge as compared to flat using pedals.

    Okay, remember we are taking a point of view which is exclusively about “RACE ONLY”, which is at the level we are, and our concerns are as following.

    1) James, we understand the mechanics of flat pedals, as you have explained them to the maximum, however, there is a topic you have not touched upon yet. How to be as competitive with flat pedals as with clipless pedals.

    2) When racing, conficende is king, going as fast as possible through EVERY section is the objective and goal. I will give you an example:

    2013 UCI DH World Champs in South Africa, from the top 30 riders in race day, 29 used clipless pedals for that track, except for one rider, which Im sure you can guess, was Sam Hill. Do you know what happened to him? He has the worst crash in the entire race.
    We have analyzed his crashing video over 100 times, and we have arrived at the conclusion that his crash wast posture related. But how did his posture influenced him to crash?
    Take a look back at flat pedal weaknesses section, the first one is that flat pedals are 100% posture dependent. This means that his posture lead to the failure of the one thing that depends on a riders posture, his flat pedals. Because his posture was off, his hills tipped forward, and his foot came right off the pedal and down he went.

    Give you a second example, happened to be on a practice run before a race. Started going down the track, get to a semi-flat section and start pedaling, to my surprise that while pedaling my right pedal hit a rock, which made me lose balance so that my foot came straight off the pedal, and down I went.

    Here is the statement which I don’t like, but which you may even like less, “If Sam Hill had been riding with clipless at the south african world championship this year, like everybody else, he would have not crashed the way he did”, if I had been riding with clipless pedals and smacked that rock, my foot would have continued to being attached to the pedal and I wouldn’t have crashed either.

    Right now we feel frustrated, because we have ran into situations where flat pedals have embedded into us a certain fear factor. If we see lots of rocks on this sections, we are doubtful of trying to pedal at all, so we become slower at those sections.
    At the levels of performance where a tenth, hundredth, thousandth of a second makes a difference, what can we do to keep the edge of flat pedals at the same level of performance as clipless pedals?

    We need new techniques to overcome these physical differences between flat pedals and clipless pedals.

    This past week got a new set of Teva Pivot clipless shoes, because they looked to have a more rearward position to the cleats than the 5.10 clipless shoes. They did, but only by 2 milimeters. For the cleat to be at the perfect position, we need to find a shoe that can bring the cleat back another 5 milimeters. And that would be the center of the foot.

    My take on this is that, if we could find a shoe, or make a clipless shoe, that could position the foot as it is positioned when we use flat pedals, on the pedals, THAT, would be one lethal weapon for racing. You would get the benefit of the foot position from flat pedals together with the security of clipless pedals!, and it wouldn’t even need to have a stiff sole because the foot would be resting on the platform of the clipless pedal, like you find on a Mallet DH pedal.

    But without this hypothetical shoe, what can we do James?

    Again, thanks for all the help you have given to thousand of riders, including us!


    Reply • September 25 at 9:44 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the kind words and it is apparent that you have put a lot of thought into this. Unfortunately I won’t be able to address every point but I did want respond to a few things.

      First, I don’t agree that flat pedals are posture dependent and clipless pedals aren’t, or that Sam Hill’s crash was caused by flats pedals. A lot of clipless pedal riders also crashed in that race and while you see a foot come off in Sam’s crash it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have still gone down if he had been attached to his pedals. You could argue that his wreck might have been worse if he had been attached.

      And I’ve always said – even in this post – that you can use clipless pedals for racing applications if you want, just don’t use them all the time.

      I also don’t agree that riders are getting better on flats and worse on clipless. In fact, I’ve often said and have heard from riders that getting better of flats made them better on clipless.

      And I don’t agree flats are more prone to throw you off balance when you mis-shift or lose traction. I think you are confusing “slipping a foot” with “losing balance” but they are not the same thing. I’ve slipped a foot and stayed balance and I’ve seen clipless pedal rider fall over after slipping traction or missing a shift.

      When it comes to performance, you seem hung up on being able to pedal with reckless abandon through rock gardens, which is easier to do with clipless but possible with flats as well. If you clip a rock you can go down no matter what shoe you wear, its not like riders on clipless never crash from clipping a rock.

      For a lot of riders, the mental relief from flats more than makes up for any possible pedaling performance decrease from being attached to your pedals. Again, I’ve got lots of feedback from riders who are now faster in flats than they ever where in clipless.

      As far as a shoe, if any of the shoe makers would get their head out of their ass and stop just making “me-too” products we’d see a true innovation in clipless pedal shoes but until then just do what I tell my riders who race in them to do – drill out your own holes in the soles.

      And wrecks happen. You can’t out-think or out-plan that fact. No matter what equipment you ride, you will crash and you could probably find a way to connect your equipment at the time to the wreck.

      Unfortunately I think that some of your observations and conclusions are bit off, hope this helps clear some of it up.

      Reply • September 26 at 1:02 pm
      • Jonathan says:

        Hey James!

        Thanks a lot for your answers!, and that is why I wanted to ask all of these questions, because some are just assumptions, some others are just ideas, but the fact of the matter is that I too know and feel that I am a better rider today than I was a year ago when I started using flat pedals for the first time.
        After this year of only using Flats from XC to DH, like I mentioned a few days ago tried clipless again with the new shoes, but it is actually uncomfortable to ride on them, its very apparent that the clip is off the center of the foot, very close to the ball of the foot, and while cornering or landing, my legs actually feel a little weaker than when I’m riding with flats.
        Anyway, these are just some personal comments.

        Thanks for all your answers! and we truly look upon you for more guidance!



        Reply • September 26 at 8:42 pm
  6. bearhair says:

    Jonathan and James, – I do appreciate both the professional questions, observations and responses between you two. This subject is as volatile as politics and religion. Your time spent and feedback freely given has been enlightening to digest. !

    Reply • September 26 at 10:15 pm
  7. Nathan says:

    My experience:

    I did start MTB using SPD… Used to ride more and more, until I injured my knees. I sold all my stuff. Bike included.

    I came back to MTB last year, decided to go for flat pedals+trail shoes.

    Results? More fun. No pain in the knees. Flats help to improve your riding skills -core/back posture (also jump and other things that are not natural with attached foot, or let’s say too easy)

    The danger of clipless, is the possibility to pull the pedals, which create in long term some join issues. It give some boost at the beginning, but create bad-stress on the knee join.

    I do agree with the theory “just because something made us faster didn’t make it “better”.

    Behind hi-tech, there is business. Some technical stuff are really good, others are “pure marketing”. Just like “heart sensors”… Many people (I used to be one of them also…) spend more time to check heart rate and screen gadget, instead of listening to their body and enjoying the landscape… At the end? Faster, bip-bip? lower, bippp, faster bip-bip? roger…

    My advise? Checking sometimes the chrono is ok, enjoy the ride every time is better!
    One more thing about platform+trail shoes… You can truly hike and bike. Mountain biking means also that some of the trail cannot be ridden.

    Reply • July 29 at 7:10 am
  8. Cliff says:

    Spot On James.Answers alot of ?’s and we agree with you.Thanks, Love the Website

    Reply • December 1 at 9:57 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks, glad you liked the article and the site.

      Reply • December 2 at 11:50 am
  9. Matthew Brown says:

    I’ve been riding since the mid 90s on SPD’s, then went to Crank Bros Candy/Eggbeaters. Recently I have gotten back into BMX, and newer Urban Freeride type riding, and have found that the type of riding, and the bike change me pedal needs. In XC and trail riding, I am putting on hard miles, long rides and often need efficiency. Thus I continue to use my clipless pedals. I am not all that concerned of falling, and when I do it’s generally not going to hurt that much, even if I take the bike with me. Now I find with BMX and Urban Freeride, if I fall, I need to bail as I am generally falling on concrete, or into a metal object like a railing. I tried doing alot of this with clipless and found myself to be timid, as I knew if I messed up it was going to suck. So for the first time in 20 years I am finding myself using flats. With that said my concern is laces not getting stuck, and my feel being able to grip the pedals. I am not usually riding 30+ miles on those bikes, so I’m not feeling extreme fatigue either way. On a 10-12 mile ride with lots of stops I find it doesn’t really matter if I am wearing DC’s. I don’t do a lot of freeride in the woods, or DH, so I wouldn’t know about that, but for my needs I find a good pair of skate shoes or even addidas shelltoes works just as well as long as I can keep them tight.

    Reply • December 30 at 3:39 pm
  10. Jarmila Gorman says:

    Great article, thank you! Now – what about long-distance bikepacking where you’re in the saddle most of the day, with a couple of hike-a-bikes and then camping/relaxing thrown in? I would love to just bring one pair of shoes, hence my interest in platform pedals and comfy shoes (I have hike-a-biked 100s of miles in cycling shoes and it’s no fun). Thanks 🙂

    Reply • July 9 at 5:39 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’d recommend the Catalyst Pedal and a good pair of comfortable shoes. You don’t need clipless pedals and flats will help your feet feel better after a lot of pedaling as well.

      Reply • July 11 at 4:59 pm
  11. David says:

    Flat pedals set you free in so many ways I have lost count. I rode clipless pedals for twenty years, and all that did for me was keep me from learning the skills that would make me a better rider. Clipless gave me a false sense of ability… Free yourself from clips, and learn how to ride and handle your bike properly, then those skills will transfer over to riding clipless… not the other way around.

    Reply • January 6 at 10:44 am
  12. Vinay says:

    I liked how these 5.10 Impact (low) shoes worked with my concave platforms. But after having switched to Catalyst pedals (two pairs for both mountainbikes, one pair for the commuter to work and one pair for the mountain unicycle) I feel indeed that the 5.10 Freerider works better. I use the Freerider in regular life (work etc) so they’re quite worn and flexible. And they’re still hugely comfortable on the Catalyst pedals when I ride to and from work. It is just that the 5.10 Impact shoes aren’t worn enough to replace them that I still use these on the mtb and MUni. But if I’m going to replace these, I’ll indeed get some more Freeriders. Better feel, more comfort and grip.

    It is funny how the cycling industry is a bit backwards in this department. Running for instance has been embracing more flexible shoes for about two decades or so. That is, Adidas had the “feet you wear” concept back in the nineties but their “torsion” technology allowing independent front and rear foot motion was already there in the eighties. Time for the cycling shoe manufacturers to catch up!

    Reply • January 6 at 3:20 pm
  13. Mtv says:

    I’ve done some experimenting with moving the cleats on clippless shoes so they are under the ball of your foot. It’s very simple to drill out a new slot. Anyway, the change was very significant. No advantage at all with power or balance but major problems unclipping. You don’t have the range to twist your foot enough to disengage. It’s a fundamental flaw of unclipping. Hope someone out there is smart enough ti figure out a new. Lipping mechanism and solve the prob and maybe the whole debate.

    Reply • January 8 at 7:16 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The problem is that clipless pedals are an unnatural thing and there is no real way to solve the problem of how unnatural they are. They are based on a completely false view of the pedal stroke and if you are going to support the foot properly when your foot won’t be able to rotate to unclip.

      Reply • January 9 at 4:25 pm
  14. Nikolaj Kildeby says:

    Hi James and others,
    I’ve just switched to flats and love it so far.
    I walk and run in barefoot shoes like the Vivobarefoots and are wondering if these could be used on the flats as well. Maybe with their hiking boot or trail shoe.
    Anyone has experience with this?

    Reply • January 9 at 1:05 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’m not sure, I need to experiment more myself but I would think you could. The main thing is you want a relatively flat, featureless sole to maximize the grip of the pins and you want the sole to be pliable but thick enough to not rip apart easily on the pins. Any shoe with these two things could work on flats.

      Reply • January 9 at 4:22 pm
  15. Mtv says:

    James – I finally went all in for flat pedals and have a question about bike fit. But first, flats have delivered everything you’ve been saying. I have a great deal more control of the bike and a lot more stability on the downhill with a heals-down position. I am really riding much faster through the swooping sections and pedaling at least 1-2 gears higher. I could not be happier with that. I have no problem at all with slippage or stability on the pedal (riding 5.10 shoes and Expedo Spry pedals – sorry, the Catalysts were just too big for my size 9 foot) and am really able to put down some significant power on the technical climbs. My only problem now is with proper position on the bike. Since my foot is now nearly 1.5-1.75 inches more forward, I find the back wheel breaks loose easily with my weight shifted forward – especially when standing. With only 5-6 rides on flats, I’m still adapting but do you have any information or posts you recommend on how to do a bike fit? I needed to lower my seat about 0.75″ for proper leg extension but am very confused about seat position and achieving proper weight distribution on a bike who’s geometetry was designed for clipless foot position. When I stand to pedal and move my hips back to put weight on the back wheel, I lose all the power gains from having a mid-foot position on the pedals. Should I be moving my foot back and put the axle just behind the ball of my foot?
    Thanks and keep the blog going.

    Reply • March 5 at 8:02 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      This is a common problem and here is a blog post with some of the tips I use to help riders overcome it. Once you understand how to position your hips properly you have much better traction.

      BTW, as someone with a size 10 shoe and a wife with a small foot who also uses the Catalyst Pedals I am not sure I believe that they are too big for your feet. Unless your pedals are long enough to connect the front and back of your arch your foot is unbalanced and unstable and that also plays a role in this as well. The better your feet are supported the better balanced you are and the better you can move so I’d still encourage you to try a pair.

      Reply • March 6 at 11:14 am
  16. Ryan T. says:

    Not sure if this will garner a response as I realize it’s an old post! Great article and other content on the website/FB page. I am newer to MTB and my skills aren’t quite up to where I would like them to be. So on trails I don’t know very well or that I know are on the tougher side I use VP Harrier flats (which I thought were the largest footprint out there before I saw the catalyst!) and on trails I have more confidence not to bite it I use clipless, as with my roadie background I do enjoy the feeling of being clipped in.

    The catch is that I am a big guy at 6’7” w/ a size 16 or 17 shoe. I have been able to nab a couple pairs of Shimano MTB clipless in a size 52( 16.2US) but for flats I haven’t been able to find proper MTB flats. It appears my best options are skate shoes or hiking shoes. DC makes some proper skate shoes that appear to be built tough and have flat, sticky soles, but Ive read the lack of stiffness is a dealbreaker. Columbia also makes a size 17 but again the stiffness issue and knobby, grippy traction on the soles might not be best for gripping the pedals.

    I currently use some old Columbia light hiking/casual work shoes for my flats and I do notice some foot fatigue when I use them. They are very light and flexible.

    I am in the Midwest so my type of riding would be XC and trail riding with nothing too extreme. My main focus other than enjoying riding the trails and being outdoors is getting a cardio workout. So that’s where I’m at with why I ride.

    Do you have any recommendations for a guy who cant go the 5.10 route due to sizes not being available?



    Reply • November 13 at 1:19 pm

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