Introduction

Kristofer Henry, Owner - 44 Bikes

credit: Kristofer Henry, Owner – 44 Bikes

So you’ve decided you would like to start the adventure of getting a custom handmade mountain bike frame built for yourself. Congratulations! You are about to embark on a fantastic journey to make your dreams comes true, at least your mountain bike dreams that is. The biggest hurdle that you’ll have to face is wading through the vast amount of custom mountain bike frame builders to choose the one that fits you best.

Fortunately, I’m here to give you some advice on the top 10 factors you need to consider when choosing a custom frame builder. Actually all of this advice is not even just from me but from active custom frame builders from across the United States. I have contacted many custom frame builders throughout the country to give me their advice on factors they feel are important when choosing a frame builder. With all of this support I hope to help making the choice of choosing a frame builder for your next dream bike a bit easier.

I’m not weighing any of these factors any more heavily than the others because they are all important and should be considered together. Each decision in one of these areas often affects many more decisions and factors into other considerations. My goal is to simply give you 10 solid items to consider that should help you to select your next custom handmade frame builder.

Top Ten Factors To Focus On When Choosing A Custom Mountain Bike Frame Builder:

  1. Nosce Te Ipsum – Know Thyself
  2. Reputation and Expertise
  3. Communication
  4. Builder Personality
  5. Geometry Philosophy
  6. Location
  7. Frame Construction & Joinery Methods
  8. Special Features
  9. Warranty & Insurance
  10. Timeline

Nosce Te Ipsum –  Know Thyself

In the introduction I mentioned that these factors were not weighed heavier than another. However, I do believe this factor is one that you must consider first before the rest. You must do some personal inventory in order to assess how you are going to use your new bike. You need to look at how you ride your bike. Is it fast and technical, smooth and flowy, or mash and bash? Where do you ride most often? Where you want to ride on trips?

Know thyself

“The most important thing for a customer to decide is what exactly they want their bike to do and how they will be using it.  The biggest mistake customers make is trying to make one bike do everything and end up with a bike that does nothing really well.  I tell them to be realistic about their intended use so the bike doesn’t get “watered down” so to speak.”  – Sean Walling | Soulcraft Bikes

Sean makes a great point here when he says “realistic”. You need to sit down and really think about your day in and day out riding and what you want out of this new bike. Maybe this new bike will completely change what your day in and day out riding is like. That’s not a bad thing but definitely needs to be considered.

“Some people know exactly what they want, down to every angle and tube dimension, and some people are starting from scratch and want guidance on every detail. Personally, I love that variability. It means that not only is the bike tailored to the individual rider, but the custom process is too.”  – Kevin Wolfson |Firefly Bicycles

I agree with what Kevin says above. I’ve known many bike geeks that eat, sleep, and breathe mountain biking. They monitor the forums, read magazines, and know all the latest trends. Others out there don’t have as much knowledge but have a general basic foundation that they hope to leverage to help in the design process. The best thing for you to do is to focus on what you do know and let the frame builder fill in the gaps.

“My favorite customers are the ones who savor the process.  There’s a lot of communication that takes place to cover every last detail, cover every possible compromise and to fully realize the builders interpretation of the customer’s needs.  The good builders really get that right and the good customers get some insight into what it takes to make a well fitting, good looking and durable bike that should feel perfect the second they throw a leg over it.” – Sean Chaney | Vertigo Cycles

Savoring the process is definitely important when it comes to building a frame. Really take the time to sit down and assess your needs and goals for your bike and you’ll be much more happy with the results. It also helps the builder more quickly come to grips with what you’re trying to achieve. If you’ve ever done a project with a fuzzy undefined goal you know how frustrating that can be.

Reputation & Experience

Reputation and experience definitely represent a high priority on my list of factors when choosing a frame builder. You want to know that when you sit down with the builder that this isn’t their first rodeo. You want to know that they will be able to use their expertise to build a top performing bike to meet your goals.

Reputation

“I’d give the most weight to the builder’s experience and reputation. It takes a while to learn what makes a bike fit and ride well, and it takes a while to be able to translate that information into a well built frame (by way of good welding/brazing/machining/etc). Before I spent a ton of money on a bike I’d want to know that the builder had a decent number of frames under his/her belt (I don’t know what that number would be), and I’d want to be sure that he or she was in it for the long haul and would stand behind their work.”  – Jim Kish | Kish Fabrication

Think about it this way. If you had to go to the doctor, would you want someone fresh out of med school or a doctor that has been in practice for 30 years?

“More experienced builders have sold designed and built thousands of frames and go through the process every day. They have seen almost every type of situation and know what it takes to fit and select the appropriate geometry and tubes in order to produce exactly the qualities you want in your frame. They can help you understand your priorities and help make choices when trade-offs exist. In this department there is absolutely no substitute for experience.” – Carl Strong | Strong Frames

If you don’t exactly know which builders have the best reputation or experience you should do some research on forums like Velocipede and The Paceline to see what others have to say about various builders and their experience. It’s always a good idea to talk to your buddies to hear what they have say from their experience or information they’ve heard from other riders. Local bike shops are also a good knowledge base to gather from.

“Any good builder should have a reputation and often new customers come to me via word of mouth from other clients. Looking around and talking to different people is always a good idea. Always use a builder who has insurance and conducts their business in a professional way.”  – Ira Ryan | Ira Ryan Cycles

I haven’t wrote a lot for reputation and expertise but I think it is fairly explanatory and what other custom frame builders have to say carries more weight than my words. It should be high on anyone’s list of factors to consider when choosing a frame builder. With the amount of time and money involved in a custom frame it really behooves you to choose a solid reliable builder with experience under their belt. You will pay more but you’ll also get more in return.

Communication

Communication is always important when it comes to completing a project. Getting a frame built is no different. Often times the builder is not near your geographic location, so communication is done over the phone and via email.

communication

“Communication is key whether it is e-mail, telephone, or in person, they must be comfortable that the builder is listening to them and addressing their needs.” – Dave Hill | Victoria Cycles

When you initially start contacting frame builders to ask them questions you should be observant of how quickly they respond to you. Are they slow or are they fast? Do they answer you with detailed responses or are they short and lack depth?

“It is good to find a builder who will ask lots of questions to really understand what you want – what you have liked/disliked with previous bikes etc.” – Rob English | English Cycles

“I think enthusiasm plays a big part of the communication process too.  You want to go with a company that is just as excited about building the frame as you are about riding it.” Chris Williams | Cysco Cycles

Rob and Chris really hit the nail on the head with these insights. You really want to find an enthusiastic builder who is eager to take on your frame build project. This will be easy to tell because they will try to work with you from the beginning asking questions and responding with detailed answers. This will really give you a good idea of the direction your build with them would be headed. Making sure a builder is interested in your project and not becoming just another name on their wait list is an important feeling to get from a builder. You want to feel that they are just as invested as you.  John Caletti feels the same way.

“I think ultimately communication is a sort of feeling – like the customer feels heard, understood, they know what’s going on, they are getting their questions answered and it all happens in a timely manner. “ – John Caletti | Caletti Cycles

Communication is important for documentation too. If a builder only wants to work over the phone it’s a lot harder to know for sure that they have wrote down everything exactly as you’ve explained it or misinterpreted what you said.

“MOST of our customers communicate with us via email. It is nice to have a thread to review in the event that some details need to be sorted out. Phone conversations or visits seem to be where most customers are getting a feel for who we are.”  – Matt Cardinal | Signal Cycles

Communication is a big factor in getting a custom frame built. It is always a good idea to make sure that you feel the builder understands what you are saying, attentively responses to you with detailed information, and makes you feel that they are excited to work with you.

Builder Personality

I think personality goes hand in hand with communication. Often these two are closely related and affects the process of your build accordingly. While bad communication with a builder can be almost always agreed as a bad thing, an interesting personality is not always found to be so bad. Just make sure your personalities can mesh well with one another to create an amazing end product.

Builder Personality

“A good question is how well you get along with the builder, and how well your personality matches the brand’s personality. Custom bikes should be personal and special things. Connecting with the builder and the company in general will make the process of getting the bike and the end result more enjoyable.” – Kevin Wolfson |Firefly Bicycles

As Kevin mentions, the ability to have a “connection” is really the important piece here. Oftentimes when you’re getting a custom bike frame built you’re associating a bit of yourself with the company or the builder.

“When a person decides to become a client, in a way they’re often choosing a partner to collaborate with or aid in bringing a dream to fruition. I know it may sound a little “peace, love, and happiness” but there should be a clicking on some level, that way you know that you can work together.” – Christopher Dornbach | Dornbox Bicycles

Christopher really speaks to the notion that you need to know and feel that you and your builder can work well together. You really want to find a builder that you feel gets you and that you enjoy working with. If you don’t address this you could be in for a long project that isn’t as enjoyable as you thought it would be and your frame may not come out as great as you hoped.

“Builders are unique and individual and therefore have different personalities, styles and workflows – so for a given customer, some builders are a better fit/match than others. I think folks figure this out through a phone call, a couple e mails, and also looking at the builders past work and seeing if it resonates with them.” – John Caletti | Caletti Cycles

John’s thoughts are another great example of what I’m trying to convey with this section. You will have to feel out each builder that you are interested in working with to see if they fit your personality. Are they too analytical, too laid back, too pushy, too anything you don’t get along with? Really treat getting a custom frame built as a relationship and it should help you to be able to choose a builder more effectively.

Geometry Philosophy

This factor I feel is probably going to be the one that most custom frame purchasers might not have totally worked out and will need the most help with. I feel that custom bike frame geometry is definitely part of the art of frame building. The builder has to take into consideration many factors to create the correct frame geometry for the customer. They have to balance riding terrain and rider body requirements to create a frame that fits like a glove and rides like nothing else.

geometry

credit: Ventana USA

“I feel that part of getting a custom frame, especially a mountain bike, is that the builder needs to adapt the geometry to both fit the rider’s body but also the way they ride.”  – Luke Sandusky | SCW Customs

One of the best tips for getting a good baseline geometry for your custom frame is to look at the geometry of your current bike. What do you like about it? What don’t you like? Maybe it’s not even your current frame that you’ve ridden that you really enjoyed. Look up the geometry online or contact the manufacturer to give you the specs. This groundwork can really pay off and help the builder have a foundation to work off of for your custom frame geometry.

“The primary importance to buying a custom frame is having something that is specific to “you”. The fit and geometry of the frame are key to being comfortable, efficient and stable on the bike.”  – Doug Curtlo | Curtlo Cycles

Below Matt and Dave mention how geometry philosophy relates to the factors of communication and knowing what you want. The builder should be able to communicate with you what will help you reach the goals for your frame. You want to find a builder that will not just push their agenda but expand your knowledge and understanding of frame geometry.

“When trying to choose a builder it’s important to interview a number of small builders and really pay attention to a few critical points that the builder should touch on related to the geometry of their bicycles and how it applies to you. Even if you are very knowledgeable on what geometry you prefer, a good builder should be able to offer suggestions on possible changes and more importantly explain WHY those changes would be of benefit.” – Matt Nunn | Samsara Cycles

“Geometry is important and you should choose a builder that, if they don’t share your ideas, will adequately explain why and understands what you are after so they can meet your expectations.” – Dave Hill | Victoria Cycles

Knowing what you want can sometimes be a hassle if you’re not willing to compromise with a frame builder and trust their expertise.  John Caletti states below how he deals with customers with a stubborn mindset. Finding a builder that will work with you through hard headed times like these is a hallmark of a great builder.

“Sometimes I’ve had conversations where someone is stuck on one certain geometry variable, and I have to ask what is the goal they have with that number – how do they want the bike to ride/feel? Usually there are a combination of factors that will affect that goal.”  – John Caletti | Caletti Cycles

Matt Nunn also offered some great insight into a couple of considerations about geometry philosophy that can help or hinder a rider as well as their bike build. Consider both of these quotes when getting your custom frame built.

“One of the most important things a builder should discuss with you is any pain you currently have during or after riding. Often time’s pain can be eliminated with a custom frame. No matter what your personal philosophy may be on a specific bicycle geometry, it’s important to understand that it may be part of the problem! Find a builder that can work with you to alleviate some of those issues; after all, isn’t this one of the most important reasons for custom geometry?” – Matt Nunn | Samara Cycles

“Discuss your preferences for components BEFORE the builder starts the design! A good builder factors in the component selection into the frame geometry. Remember that a simple headset, stem, handlebar, seat post, etc. change can have big effects on geometry.” – Matt Nunn | Samsara Cycles

Geometry philosophy is an important factor to look at when choosing a custom frame builder. This is one of the biggest factors in getting the right bike custom made for you and your riding style. Make sure the builder is interested in your body measurements as much as your riding terrain. You and the builder need to have open communication about the geometry in order to achieve your goals with trust from the customer that the builder usually “knows best”.

Location

Location was one of the factors I came up with for this article that I originally thought about in only one way but was quickly enlightened by the responses from the many custom mountain bike frame builders I talked to. When I thought about location being a factor I only thought of it as a proximity to the builder. How easy would it be to go meet face to face with the builder, see their shop, get personally fitted, and maybe save on shipping costs.

location

“Local might reduce the costs of shipping and it might be more fun for the customer to go and meet the builder and work directly with them. I have a lot of fairly local customers, but I know some outstanding builders who have almost no local customers, but lots of happy ones far away” – John Caletti | Caletti Cycles

“Location is very important to many.  In fact even making distinctions between one state or five states.   I do like to meet with customers but if it has to be done remotely I see no difference between 500 miles or 3000 miles but customers do for some reason.” – Dave Bohm | Bohemian Bicycles

“When a region has unique conditions that require a geometry other than the norm, a builder can (hopefully) alter the design to the rider’s advantage. They also run the risk of being typecast as a regional builder, however. I build bikes for riders, wherever they are. People are mistaken if they think that my designs are only for a specific region, but it happens and I can’t control it.” – Stephen Stickel | By:Stickel Handcrafted Custom Bicycles

It turns out that location actually relates to other factors when choosing a frame builder. These include geometry philosophy, builder personality, and sometimes reputation.

“Because many builders specialize in designs that excel in their regions, it would be of the riders benefit to work with a local builder if possible.” – Ted Wojcik | Ted Wojcik Custom Bicycles

“The reason I am often given for why customers have chosen me as their builder is because I ride a similar bike/similar terrain myself. Which means I can directly talk about the geometry and construction with reference to actual performance on the trail.” – Rob English | English Cycles

Ted and Rob both strike the same cord when it comes to location being more than just about where a builder is physically located. Often time’s builders specialize in creating bikes based on the native terrain and what they like to ride themselves. They understand the terrain better and are more adept at translating what works best for that particular style of riding into their frames. Some customers can really benefit from this specialization if they ride similar terrain.

“For my customers, I want them to have a connection to what I hope to embody and represent as a cyclist and frame builder.  I grew up in the claimed birthplace of mountain biking and am heavily influenced by the riders and builders of that time (Breeze, Potts, Cunningham, WTB, Fisher, etc.).” – Whit Johnson | Meriwether Cycles

“A lot of my customers, and almost all of them who want a MTB, seek me out to build a very specific type of bike (the short stay 29er) which I started building because I was trying to approximate some of the handling characteristics of trials bikes I’ve ridden mixed with the “woods bikes” that I grew up riding on the east coast.” – Sean Chaney | Vertigo Cycles

Both Whit and Sean also harken back to their surroundings and riding experience of their past to build frames for customers. Some riders really appreciate this regional specialization, while others may not feel it is as important to them. Ultimately location does affect each frame builder differently and could be a factor in your decision. You’ll need to determine if you want to work with a builder that is local to you for more possible personal face to face interaction that might specialize in the type of terrain you ride or someone further away that you are more interested in working with for other reasons.

Frame Construction Material and Joinery Methods

This is a pretty easy factor to determine but is still important. You want to make sure the builder(s) you are considering working with offer the frame building materials and joinery methods that you prefer. Often times this is very simple information to find via the frame builders’ website.

fillet brazing

Fillet brazing before and after finishing | credit: Periera Cycles

“I try to provide a bit of education about material properties and engineering during the process. Essentially it is much more important to choose a builder who will take the time to really understand your needs than to choose a material.” – Rob English | English Cycles

Once again this goes back to the builder listening to you as a rider and determining what will meet your goals. It is always good to find a builder that will help you decide if you’re on the fence or take the effort to explain why one direction is better than the other.

“Brazing and TIG welding are of equivalent practical value. Meaning both will have the same strength and durability as long as a builder with experience does them correctly. The choice is aesthetic and monetary. Fillet brazed frames are more expensive than TIG because they require more finish work and in the case of lugged frames more prep work. TIG frames take less time to build and are typically a bit less expensive as a result.” – Carl Strong | Strong Frames

Carl states the joinery methods choice quite simply. Are you looking for a more aesthetic and costly joint or is something slightly less expensive and faster your priority? Many pictures can be found on builders’ websites showing the difference in the two methods. Most builders can do both joinery methods but some may have a preference for one or another or not offer one of them at all.

“Material choice is an important aspect of the design. Whether building with steel, Ti or aluminum the custom builder must factor in the frame size, rider strength and weight and intended use for the bike.” – Doug Curtlo | Curtlo Cycles

The construction materials are important to the ride of any bike. Each material has its benefits and weaknesses. Some materials are more expensive than others, while some offer different riding properties and weight penalties. A good builder will help you sort this out if they offer multiple construction options.

Todd at Black Sheep Bikes brings up another thought to consider about which construction materials your builder uses: think American.

“Nova Cycle Supply and Paragon Machine Works companies for tubing supply… Good to know your American made bike is made from locally sourced parts too.” – Todd Heath | Black Sheep Bikes

While construction materials and joinery methods are a pretty cut and dry factor, it is important to consider. You want to choose a builder that can perform the type of joinery you are after and offers the tubing material you think you want for your frame. If your builder offers multiple methods, make sure they take the time to discuss which is best for your project.

Special Features

Another factor you need to look at when choosing a frame builder is if they offer any special features that you require or want. Common special features are sliding or rocker dropouts, radiused (bent) tubing, frame couplers to make a frame easier to transport or ship, oversized or tapered headtube, Gates belt drive, or specific bottom bracket size.

tapered steerer tube

“Modern features can be difficult for many builders to accommodate. The cost of reamers and facers are high and in a lot of cases these changes are market driven and get introduced to reduce the cost and skills required of assembly by major manufacturers.  True benefit should be considered before the decision is made on which way to go. Features based on style will become obsolete by definition.” – Ted Wojcik | Ted Wojcik Custom Bicycles

Ted knocks this one out of the park. New trendy features can be expensive and will cost a builder a lot of investment capital. They will need to know when they buy a tool to implement a frame feature that it will be useful down the road and not become obsolete or out of fashion quickly.

“Features become expensive – it is important to ask just what is included with the frame cost.  For example, we include most popular options like seat masts, PF30 or BB30 bottom bracket, sliders, and oversized headtubes, but with most builders you would be looking at several hundred dollars for those options.” – Chris Williams | Cysco Cycles

As Chris states above, it is always a good idea to look at what features a frame builder includes with their frame. Most builders offer various dropouts and other special features that they you can add to your frame. They are at a cost though. Always make sure you talk with your builder to make sure they can accommodate them into your build and their pricing.

Warranty & Insurance

A factor that you may not have thought about is if the builder(s) you are looking into have insurance and offer a warranty on their work. Personally I had not given this much thought until Carl Strong mentioned it to me and I started looking in to what types of warranties and insurance builders have to offer. It is an important piece to consider because it does say a lot about the financial strength of the builder and their reputation.

warranty

“Another important key distinction of an established pro builder is fiscal stability. An experienced builder will be there in the long run if you need them. If there is a problem they have the means to address it. They are also carry liability insurance which is very costly and something a lot of part time and newer builders cannot afford.” – Carl Strong | Strong Frames

If you’re going to go through all the time and trouble to get a custom frame made, I would also suggest making sure there is builder product support.  Many builders offer a warranty with your purchase. Make sure you know what is covered and what is not.

Timeline

I’m reluctant to put timeline as a real factor for deciding on a builder but it does need to be discussed. It goes without saying that getting a custom handbuilt frame takes quite a bit of time to be made. Let alone all of the initial prep-work we’ve talked about throughout the rest of the article.

timeline

“Here is the catch. Most of the best builders have a long back order. They take whatever time it takes to produce a frame with flawless construction, finish, and alignment.” – Ted Wojcik | Ted Wojcik Custom Bicycles

“Timeline is important and can make or break the deal. Anything that is built to suit takes time and a quality product should not be rushed. That said, being able to have a schedule and accurate build time is part of running a professional business.”  – Ira Ryan | Ira Ryan Cycles

Ted and Ira sum up this part of frame building quite nicely. If you want quality work, it is going to take a while. The important takeaway is that you and your builder have a schedule for your frame production. If a builder cannot give you a solid time that they believe the frame will be completed by you might start looking elsewhere.

“Many people are willing to wait for a bike if it is exactly what they want. I think there are limits, of course, but at the same time waiting is part of the game for any bespoke product.” – Jesse Fox | Independent Fabrication Bikes

“Timeline is very important.  Either they will wait approximately a month or they will wait a long time.  Any frame builder worth their salt has a backlog of at least a few months (it’s called job security)” – Dave Bohm | Bohemian Bicycles

Timeline can be a factor in your decision process to choose a frame builder. You need to go in to this venture knowing that the build process will take some time and highly sought after builders have longer waiting lists than others. In the end the custom frame made specifically for you will be worth it. This last quote from Joe DePaemelaere will really drive this home.

“Timeline is sort of related to reputation. If you have a rep like Richard Sachs, most customers who want his bike don’t mind the wait. If someone wants a bike today, they are probably not going to look at a custom frame anyways. I’ve had potential customers look elsewhere because the build time is too long. I’m OK with that. I’m not going to squeeze the build schedule to fit in another bike and devalue my current customer’s patience. I’d rather work with a customer that knows and accepts the time-frame. I know that they want a bike from me because I’ll focus 100% on their bike and not rush it through. The customer who emails every week and asks if I can “get it done sooner” just wants a bike frame and not the love, dedication and experience that should go in to a custom frame.” – Joe DePaemelaere |PM Cycle Fabrication

How Frame Builders Choose Bikes For Themselves

I had the unique opportunity to talk to Whit Johnson about what he thought about choosing a custom frame builder. Whit himself is now a frame builder and has purchased custom frames for himself in the past before he started building them. His story illustrates the process he went through to choose a builder. As you’ll see location, personality, communication, and geometry philosophy were all important factors to Whit enjoying a successful frame build project.

“In 2004 I bought my first custom frame from Rick Hunter.  I grew up in the same area as Rick and actually played little league baseball with him.  Marin had/has frame building and mountain biking in its soul, so I wanted a bike that represented my roots to a certain extent.  Rick also encompassed the ‘adventure’ gene for me being a big bike tourer and endurance racer like myself.  I knew he would know what to make me. I loved the look and idea of steel fillet-brazed frames so that’s what I asked him for. He worked with me on the desired geometry even though he didn’t agree with all my ideas.  Lastly, his prices were also within my budget.”  – Whit Johnson | Meriwether Cycles

Go Meet Builders In Person At The North American Handmade Bicycle Show In Colorado This Year

North American Handmade Bicycle ShowOne the best ways to seek out a frame builder is to attend one of the many handmade bicycle shows throughout the country. The biggest of the year is the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS). This year it is held in Denver, Colorado February 22-24. This show is the best way to meet the most builders all year. The show has continually grown each year featuring more builders and offering more seminars to learn about the business, grow the industry, and get to know one another.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the show back when it was hosted in Indianapolis. It made a lasting impression on me due to the sheer talent of the bikes on display and all of the wonderful people I got to meet and talk to. It is truly a great event where you can talk to builders face to face, check out their work, take lots of pictures, and really enjoy the frame building culture.

Ultimate List: American Mountain Bike Frame Builders

I’ve published a large list of American mountain bike frame builders. The list is kept up to date with new builders as I find them or visitors send them in to me. The list contains the name, website, location, building materials, and example frame of each builder. This list will help you out greatly in your search for your next custom mountain bike frame builder.

Ultimate List: American Mountain Bike Frame Builders

Conclusion

I hope that is article has been helpful in giving you some framework on how to choose a custom mountain bike frame builder. The task can be very daunting and difficult to finally decide on. Look to the wisdom and experience of the words from the many custom mountain bike frame builders in the article for advice. They know better than anyone what it takes to be a builder in the industry and interface with customers just like yourself.

Thanks again to all of the custom frame builders that helped with this article. Your expertise, knowledge, and time are immensely appreciated.

List of frame builders who helped contribute to this article:

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About Author

Welcome! I'm passionate about all things mountain biking. My articles focus on American made products as well as frame builders and riding locations in the USA.

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