What’s the best type of bike pedal and cycling shoe for bikepacking and touring? Welcome to a surprisingly heated debate!
Whether it’s a round-the-world expedition or a bikepacking overnight, someone has done it clipless and someone’s done it with flats, and both are absolutely convinced their way is the best.
I’ve personally logged a bunch of miles with a bunch of different pedal systems, from flats to clipless and even, as a transitional phase, Power Grips. My rides include everything from long-distance overseas tours to rugged bikepacking races on various combinations of pavement, gravel, and dirt.
After years of experimentation, I finally have a bikepacking shoe and pedal system that works well for me on almost all my trips, but it didn’t start out that way. I toured my first several thousand miles in trail running shoes! Please, let me help you learn from my mistakes.
Trying to decide between clipless and flats? Wondering if there’s a magic compromise option? Still trying to wrap your head around all the various types of pedal-shoe combinations and how to choose compatible parts?
This post will answer all those questions and more about pedals and shoes for touring (the term I’ll use to refer to pavement-focused riding) and bikepacking (more dirt and gravel). I’ll share my own opinions and favorites, but I’ll cover all the bases too.
Looking for something specific? Use these links to skip straight to:
- Quick Answer: my opinion
- Clipless pedals explained
- Clipless pros and cons
- SHOES: types, pros and cons
- PEDALS: types, pros and cons
- Tips for touring / bikepacking with clipless pedals
- Shopping tips for clipless newbies
Quick Answer: My Opinion
The rest of this post goes into detail about the types, pros, and cons of various shoe and pedal combinations for bikepacking and touring. If you’re new to the idea of clipless shoes, I recommend you read it!
But if you have the attention span of a gerbil (no offense, it’s common these days) and want a quick recommendation from someone with a lot of experience and a fairly typical style, here is my personal recommendation for the best shoes and pedals for bikepacking and adventurous touring.
I ride these all over the place: pavement in northern Africa, gravel on the Great Divide, singletrack while bikepack racing. Here’s what I like about them:
- 2-bolt cleat system is recessed, allowing for normal walking gait.
- Shoe is stiff enough to feel efficient but flexible at the front, which also helps with walking.
- Only thing I don’t like: the bottoms wear out, but only after thousands of miles of gravel and dirt riding with plenty of hike-a-bike.
Mamba Funn Single-Sided SPD pedals:
- SPD on one side allows for efficient pedaling.
- Platform on the other side allows for riding unclipped due to mud, damage, scary terrain, or lack of bike shoes.
- Platform is the widest and grippiest of any single-sided SPD pedals I’ve tried, ideal for bikepacking on rough trails.
- They come in fun colors.
When I tour with this setup, I often bring a pair of lightweight sandals, but it’s not a necessity. I can comfortably walk miles in the X-Alp Canyons, especially if I remove the cleats first (like for a hike or several rest days).
That’s what works for me! But you’re not just going to trust me, right? Read on to understand all the options and figure out what works best for you.
Clipless Pedals, Explained
If you’re already clear on how clipless pedals work and what the different kinds are, you’ll want to skip to the Pros and Cons. Otherwise, read on to get oriented.
What are clipless pedals?
First thing first: if you’re just getting started with this research, know that “clipless” pedals are actually the pedals you “clip in” or “click in” to, using metal cleats on the bottom of cycling-specific shoes.
Why the seemingly contradictory name? The “clip” in clipless actually refers to toe clips, which are yet another way of holding your foot on the pedal. They’re not very popular these days, having mostly been replaced by “clipless” pedals which use cleats to connect the shoe to the pedal.
These are toe clips. Hence the term “clipless” pedals, meaning pedals that attach to your shoes without the need for these.
Parts of a Clipless Pedal System
There are three parts to a clipless system: pedals, shoes, and cleats. The cleats attach to your shoes, and then the pedals attach to the cleats. All parts need to be compatible with each other.
Before starting to pedal, you make a small foot movement to click the cleats into the pedals. Another small movement is used to detach the cleat from the pedal before stopping. The tension is generally low enough so that in a bad crash, the cleat and pedal will detach without hurting your foot or knee (similar to bindings on downhill skis, if you’re familiar with that).
The most popular clipless pedal and cleat style is SPD, which technically stands for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (and its road-focused cousin, 3-bolt SPD-SL for “SuperLight”) but in practice includes parts made by many brands. There are also a few niche brands like Crankbrothers, which use their own cleat and pedal design, but the cleat can be attached to regular SPD-compatible shoes.
Pros and Cons of Clipless Pedals for Bikepacking / Touring
For many cyclists, the convenience and performance of clipless shoes is a no-brainer. When you can change out of your cycling shoes the minute your ride is over, why not? But multiday bike travelers, carrying all our gear on our bikes for days or months at a time, have a few extra factors to consider.
Pros of Clipless Pedals and Shoes
More efficient pedaling: The science is a bit fuzzy on this one, and it’s probably safe to say the difference matters a lot more to competitive racers than casual touring cyclists. Still, proponents say that when used with good technique, clipless pedals can help you develop a smooth and powerful pedal stroke by allowing for push and pull at a wider range of angles.
Increased power for short bursts: Having your feet attached means you can pull upward on the pedals instead of just pushing down, which can help you top out a short steep climb or power across an intersection. This isn’t something most touring cyclists do often, but when you need it, it’s nice to have it.
Consistent foot placement: This sounds minor, but it’s actually one of my favorite things about touring with clipless pedals. When you’re on the bike for many hours each day, it’s a relief to never think about foot placement. With properly adjusted cleats, just click-click and you’re locked into your optimal foot position with no drift over time.
Feet don’t bounce off pedals. We all know long-distance riding can be a pain in the butt (and other places). Nothing makes that bad situation worse like hitting a pothole and taking the brunt of the impact while your feet flail in the air. This is often a bigger issue for mountain bikers riding rougher trails, though it’s said that good riding technique can minimize it even with flat pedals.
Cons of Clipless Pedals and Shoes
You have to wear cycling shoes. This is the biggest issue for most touring cyclists and bikepackers, so let’s get it out of the way first. Cycling shoes are stiffer than regular shoes, and they have metal cleats attached to the bottom. This is fine if you’re just out for an afternoon spin and only planning to hobble as far as the bar afterward. But those of us who travel by bicycle have other needs, like walking to the grocery store, chasing down a bus, and pushing our loaded bikes up unrideably steep hills.
Fortunately, with the right kind of shoe and cleat system this issue can be mostly worked around. It IS possible to walk in clipless cycling shoes, as I’ll explain further below.
There’s a (small) learning curve. It seems every cyclist has a story of failing to unclip and falling over while still attached to their bike. When I first switched to clipless I dreaded this happening at a busy intersection, but it never did. Instead it happened in the solitude of a dirt trail, where I toppled over directly into a bush of poison oak. I was scratching for weeks. Honestly though, it’s not as hard as you might think. You’ll be used to it in no time.
Sometimes you want your feet free. For bikepackers who ride technical trails, it can be scary to have feet attached to pedals while navigating obstacles. If you’re touring through a busy city, you might want your feet free for stop-and-go traffic and sudden maneuvers. Fortunately, there are hybrid pedal options that still allow for this, which I’ll get into below.
More parts that can break. Cleats can break, bolts can get lost. If you’re going to depend on a clipless system for a long tour, make sure you’re carrying the spare parts to keep it functional.
Clipping in and out can be annoying. Personally, as long as my pedals are adjusted properly, clipping in and out is easy and second-nature. My husband, on the other hand, will ride in circles for minutes because he doesn’t want to unclip at a red light. To each their own!
You can get lazy with technique. While clipless touring pedals and stiff shoes might make us feel more powerful, they can actually train us to use bad technique over time. As this passionate flat pedal devotee concludes, flat pedals force your legs to make themselves go in circles on their own, theoretically training you to pedal more efficiently.
Will you prefer clipless pedals?
Whether you’ll like touring or bikepacking with clipless pedals depends on your riding style, travel style, preferences, body, sense of identity as a cyclist… and on and on. Generalizations are always dangerous, but here are some nonetheless:
You might prefer clipless pedals for touring or bikepacking if:
- You like to ride long days.
- You like to move fast and light.
- On a bike trip you tend to mostly bike, except for the occasional rest day or walk around town.
- When you travel by bike, you think of yourself as first a cyclist and then a traveler (or at least equal parts of each).
You might prefer flat pedals for bikepacking or touring if:
- Your bike travel is more about the travel than the biking. You like to bike a bit between interesting places, then spend time exploring those places off the bike.
- You often intersperse other activities, like hiking or running, into your bike trips.
- You’re setting off on a multi-month or longer tour and want to have non-cycling shoes for significant chunks of time off the bike, but don’t want to carry a second set of shoes.
- You do a lot of bikepacking on rugged terrain – mud, rocks, rough roads, steep hike-a-bike hills – and aren’t very confident with clipless pedals in that situation.
- You think of yourself more as a traveler than a cyclist.
If you’re somewhere in the middle, don’t worry, there are a couple compromise options to consider. I’ll explain hybrid SPD pedals, as well as flats with foot retention systems, in the sections that follow.
I also want to emphasize that clipless pedals and shoes are not just for “serious cyclists.” Since I came to bike touring from a travel background and not a cycling background, it took me a long time to feel like was enough of a “real cyclist” to try clipless pedals. Once I made the switch, I’ve never gone back. Of course this is BS – we’re all real cyclists. But if you can relate, don’t be afraid to try clipless.
Cycling Shoes for Bikepacking and Touring
Now that you’re thinking about clipless vs. flat pedals, you’re probably also wondering, what’s the best shoe for bikepacking or touring? In a perfect world we’d want a shoe that’s efficient on the bike and comfortable to walk in off the bike. Does such a unicorn shoe exist?
Unfortunately, not really. There will always be a tradeoff between on-bike and off-bike performance. There are, however, a few clever compromises that work well for many tourers and bikepackers.
To understand the tradeoffs, let’s look at the main categories of cycling shoes.
Non-bike shoes: Any shoes are technically compatible with flat pedals. Some people tour in running shoes or sports sandals. They’re comfy and multipurpose, but don’t have the stiffness of a cycling-specific shoe so they’re noticeably less efficient for pedaling.
Flat bike shoes: Compatible with flat pedals. Usually considered mountain bike shoes, they are stiffer than regular shoes and have a sticky rubber sole, but are also fairly easy to walk in. Nice upgrade from regular sneakers if you want to run flat pedals.
Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch (flat)
2-bolt SPD shoes: Compatible with 2-bolt SPD pedals and marketed to mountain bikers, meaning they’re designed for some hike-a-bike. The cleat is recessed into the sole so it doesn’t contact the ground (very much) when walking. Available in a range of stiffnesses, ranging from aggressive and hard to walk in to more relaxed and flexible. Good compromise option for many bikepackers and tourers.
You can even get SPD sandals, very popular with bike tourers in hot climates: Shimano SD5
Pearl Izumi X-Alp Canyon (2 bolt SPD)
3-bolt SPD-SL shoes: Compatible with 3-bolt pedals and usually used by road cyclists. The cleat sticks out from the bottom and the sole is usually very stiff, making them awkward to walk in. Most people don’t like touring in 3-bolt shoes without bringing a separate pair of shoes to change into when off the bike.
Pearl Izumi Race Road v5 (3-bolt SPD)
2 Bolt vs. 3 Bolt (and why 2 bolt is better for touring)
The most important thing to note above is the difference between two bolt and three bolt shoes:
2 bolt cleats are recessed into the bottom of the shoe, creating an almost-flat walking surface. They’re frequently used by mountain bikers (thus sometimes called MTB style), who sometimes need to walk a bit while navigating tricky trails. You might hear a bit of click-clack or grinding when walking on hard surfaces, but your gait will generally not be affected. This style is also generally referred to as SPD.
3 bolt cleats stick out from the bottom of the shoe, making them very hard to walk in. Awkward hobbling is inevitable. They’re mostly used in road biking, in situations where the rider will be staying on their bike until the ride is over. This style is sometimes called SPD-SL (for Super Light).
Though 2 bolt shoes are marketed to mountain bikers, there’s no problem with using them on pavement. If you mostly tour on paved routes a 2 bolt system can still work great for you.
Two bolt shoes are only compatible with two bolt cleats and pedals, and three bolt shoes only with three bolt cleats and pedals, so make sure you choose compatible parts.
These pictures show the difference:
Pedals for Touring and Bikepacking
Your preferred cycling shoe will certainly narrow your pedal choices, but you might have more options than you think. Some alternative options, like a hybrid SPD pedal or flats with foot retention, might be just the compromise you’re looking for.
Here’s an explanation of different pedal types, their advantages and disadvantages for bikepacking / touring, and some recommended popular models.
Flat / Platform Pedals
Pros: Simplicity, affordability, off-bike convenience , widest shoe compatibility
Cons: Less efficient riding, especially on climbs
Who might prefer them: New cyclists, long-term bike travelers, bikepackers on rugged terrain
Flat pedals – also called platform pedals – are the simplest and most compatible with off-bike comfort. This is where many of us start out, and where many of us choose to stay.
You can ride flat pedals with any shoes. If you want a bit more power and traction, consider getting a quality pair of pedals with traction pins (like the Funndamentals MTB Flat) and an MTB shoe with a flat sticky rubber bottom and slightly stiffer sole (like the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch).
Flat Pedals + Power Grips
Pros: Simplicity and convenience of flat pedals, plus some foot retention without actual attachment
Cons: Can be fiddly to adjust, not as powerful as true clipless pedals, not compatible with some pedals
Who might prefer them: Bike tourers dedicated to flat shoes but looking for added efficiency, cyclists curious about clipless but hesitant to commit
Power Grips or similar foot strap systems are supposed to be the best of both worlds. Paired with a stiff-soled flat cycling shoe, the feeling is almost like a clipless system. Some people use them as “training wheels” on the way to a clipless setup, while others stick with them long-term.
My experience: I cycled ~4500 miles in Power Grips and Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch shoes. They were an improvement over flats, but I had trouble getting the straps adjusted perfectly for my small feet which canceled out some of the benefits.
When I finally switched to clipless I found that Power Grips had prepared me well for the pattern of clicking in and out, which made transitioning to clipless really easy. Ultimately I felt like clipless pedals allowed an even stronger pedal stroke and more consistent foot placement, basically doing what Power Grips do, only better.
2 Bolt SPD / Platform Hybrid Pedals
Pros: Combines SPD pedaling efficiency with option to use platform when needed for convenience or emergency
Cons: Pedal orientation matters (minor annoyance)
Who might prefer them: Bike travelers who like clipless but also spend lots of time off the bike; bikepackers riding rugged or varied terrain where the option to unclip is helpful
There are several names for this type of pedal (hybrid, combo, single-sided), but what you’re looking for is a platform on one side and a 2 bolt SPD mechanism on the other.
Pair a hybrid pedal with a moderately flexible 2-bolt shoe like the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Canyon – which is reasonably good for walking – and you have a very interesting shoe and pedal system for bikepacking or touring.
Why might you want a platform on one side of your SPD pedal? On a long bike trip in remote or challenging places, sh!t happens. Cleats get damaged, fall off, or clog with mud. Bike shoes disappear from outside your tent overnight. It’s hot and you want to ride in your camp sandals. Terrain gets sketchy or traffic gets slow, and you want your feet free. In all these cases, you can ride the platform side of a hybrid pedal in reasonable comfort, with or without SPD shoes.
The only minor inconvenience is making sure the pedals are the right side up when you do want to click in, but this is easy to get used to.
This is the system I use, and I recommend it highly. Sometimes I ride for hours at a time on the platforms, and I like knowing that it’s an option for getting myself out of a sticky situation.
2 Bolt SPD Pedals with Platforms
Pros: All the efficiency of SPD pedals, plus comfort of wider pressure distribution and semi-usable platform for short distances without clicking in
Cons: Awkward when not clicked in, slightly heavier than pure SPD pedals
Who might prefer them: Bike travelers who almost always ride clicked in and generally tour in places where civilization isn’t too far away
For cyclists who always ride clicked in but want a little added comfort and more flexible shoes, dual-sided SPD pedals with an integrated platform are a great choice.
You can click into these SPD pedals on both sides. The platform makes them a bit more comfortable by distributing pressure over a wider area (helpful for long days on the bike), especially while riding in a less stiff shoe (better for walking and time off the bike). Platform size varies from the smaller area of the Shimano PD-M530 to the wide and grippy Funn Mamba Double-Side.
Theoretically the platform allows for pedaling short distances without clicking in, though in practice this is awkward because the SPD hardware gets in the way. Still, it might help you get out of a sticky situation in the backcountry, or to the grocery store in your camp sandals.
2 Bolt SPD Pedals (no platforms)
Pros: Efficiency of SPD without the added weight of platforms
Cons: Hard to ride when not clipped in, less efficient and comfortable when used with more flexible cycling shoes
Who might prefer them: Experienced cyclists on shorter, less remote, or mostly paved bike tours where time off the bike isn’t a big concern. Credit card tourers or those on supported tours are especially good candidates.
This is the classic 2-bolt SPD pedal, made for riding clicked in at all times. You’ll need fairly stiff shoes to ride comfortably on these, since they only contact a small part of your foot.
If you’re a confident clipless rider coming from a day-riding background, care about performance, and plan to do your multiday rides in relatively predictable conditions, these pedals may work well for you. They’re not commonly used by long-distance bike travelers in remote or rugged places.
3 Bolt SPD-SL Pedals
Pros: Greatest pedaling efficiency, lightweight
Cons: Very hard to ride when not clipped in, require stiff shoes with protruding cleats that are very hard to walk in
Who might prefer them: Road cyclists on pavement tours, credit card tourers or supported riders with room for an extra pair of shoes, speed-focused tourers with minimal off-bike time.
Confident clipless road cyclists, riding road bikes on pavement, might tour with 3-bolt pedals and cycling shoes. I’ve seen them used by supported tourers, credit card tourers carrying spare shoes, and ultra-distance racers who spend minimal time off the bike. Most other folks will find them too inflexible for the varied demands of long-distance bike travel.
Pedals and Shoes, for Visual Learners
When I first started investigating clipless pedals for bike touring, it took me a while to figure out which shoes and pedals would be compatible with each other.
If you’re still fuzzy on which shoes go with which pedals, this graphic should help. Each pedal + cleat + shoe combo is arranged in order, from most flexible (in both materials and usage) and best for off-bike activities at the top, to least flexible and worst for off-bike activities at the bottom.
Tips for Touring / Bikepacking with Clipless Pedals
Once you’ve got your shoes and your pedals and figured out how to attach and detach them, you’re ready to ride. Here are a few tips to help your first clipless tour or bikepacking ride go smoothly.
- Pack at least one spare cleat and a couple bolts. They can break or fall off when you least expect it. If the bolts tend to loosen in the shoes over time, try a dab of Blue Loctite.
- When hike-a-biking (walking your bike) on rocky surfaces or gravel, 2-bolt cleats can make an awful grinding noise. It sounds worse than it is. Yes, your cleats will wear over time, but it takes awhile.
- If you know you’ll be doing a lot of walking, for example taking a hike or a few rest days around town, it’s quick and easy to remove the cleats from your shoes with a few turns of an allen key. This gets rid of that subtle click on hard surfaces that even recessed cleats can make, and protects the cleats from unnecessary wear.
- If you’re going all-in on the cycling shoes and not planning to bring a separate pair for walking, you may still want to pack a pair of lightweight sandals. They’re good for public showers, beaches, or short walks around town if you need a break from bike shoes.
- Most pedals have an adjustment that determines how much force is needed to click in and out. Make sure to adjust this so it’s comfortable for you. You should be able to click in and out without much effort, but not accidentally click out while riding. The right setting might change over time as cleats wear or become dirty.
Shopping Tips for Clipless Newbies
If you’re delving into the clipless pedal world for the first time, you might worry about buying the wrong type of shoe. This is where an actual bike shop can be incredibly helpful. If buying online, you’ll need to make sure you choose the right type of shoe for the pedal system you want to use (2 bolt or 3 bolt).
Telling SPD Styles Apart
Here’s a tip I wish someone had told me when I was shopping for my first pair: cycling shoe pictures often show the shoe without the cleat attached. If you’re looking at a picture of a shoe and wondering how the heck it would attach to a pedal, this might be the case. Here’s how to tell 2-bolt from 3-bolt shoes without cleats attached.
Here’s a two bolt SPD shoe without the cleat attached:
Yes, there are four bolt holes, but this is for adjusting forward-backward cleat position. Only two holes are used at a time.
Sometimes two bolt shoes come with a rubber spacer bolted where the cleat would go, which looks like this:
To attach cleats to the above shoe you would first remove the extra piece of rubber (you can see the two bolts in the above picture) and replace it with the cleat.
For comparison, here’s what a 3 bolt SPD-SL shoe looks like without the cleats attached:
And here’s a shoe that’s compatible with both a 2-bolt and 3-bolt cleat. You can see the 4 bolts in the middle, allowing forward-back adjustment of a two-bolt cleat, and the triangular pattern of the 3-bolt cleat on the outside:
Some shoes come with a pair of cleats and others don’t. They’re easy and inexpensive to buy separately, and simple to attach to the shoes with a screwdriver or allen key.
If using clipless shoes and pedals for touring, it’s wise to bring at least one spare cleat and a few bolts in your repairs and spares kit, just in case.
These are 2 bolt cleats:
These are 3 bolt cleats:
Trying Clipless Pedals on a Small Budget
I know, one of the biggest issues with trying clipless bike pedals is the expense! You just want to try it out, aren’t sure you’re going to like it, and don’t even know for sure if you’re ordering the right kind. It doesn’t make sense to drop a few hundred dollars on new pedals and cycling shoes in this case.
If this is you, consider starting small with a used pair of pedals from eBay, a local bike shop, or online gear exchanges. You can even find used bike shoes; my first pair of SPD shoes was used and served me well for thousands of miles!
Once you ride in them for awhile and learn your preferences, you might feel the need to upgrade. But if you decide to stick with flats for your next tour, the loss won’t be quite as painful (you can always sell them used again).
My Progression to Clipless
If you’re still on the fence about clipless or flats for your next tour, let me share some personal history that might help.
I rode my very first bicycle tour, a three-month solo ramble through Southeast Asia, with running shoes and flat pedals. Any lack of efficiency or comfort was completely dwarfed by my total lack of cycling experience. The shoes and pedals worked, and I didn’t feel anything was missing.
At some later point I read about Power Grips. I bought a pair, upgraded to stiffer-soled flat-bottom mountain bike shoes, and rode 4500+ miles in the US and South America. The combination definitely felt more powerful and more fun to ride in, mostly because of the stiffer shoes. I knew I would never go back to bike touring in running shoes, and the Power Grips seemed like a nice touch.
While plodding along with my Power Grips at the back of the pack in the Bike Nonstop US race across the country, I realized I was the only racer without clipless pedals. In a haze of exhaustion and sleep-deprivation, I started to envy my fellow racers’ silky smooth pedal strokes. They seemed so… powerful.
When I returned home after finishing the race on the other side of the continent, I bought a used pair of 2-bolt SPD shoes, some cheap SPD pedals with small platforms, and took the leap to riding clipless. It felt great! I especially loved that my feet were always in the right place and didn’t bounce and slip around on the pedals. One less thing to think about while riding.
When I transitioned to off-pavement bikepacking, mainly to get away from the stress of riding in traffic, I changed to a hybrid SPD pedal – platform on one side, click-in on the other – to deal with the mud and technical challenges of off-pavement riding. I’m not a very confident technical mountain biker, and often find myself unclipping before taking on a challenging obstacle (maybe a bad habit). I’ve also dealt with snow and “death mud” enough times to know that clipping in can be impossible for miles at a time. And when I just want to ride my bike to the grocery store at home, I can wear normal shoes.
I’ve since changed to Funn Mamba pedals (still hybrid SPD) for the larger and more stable platform, and upgraded to a new version of the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Canyon, but otherwise I still ride this setup. It’s taken me through Egypt and Sudan, along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and through a few tough bikepacking races, among other places. On these trips I often bring a pair of lightweight sports sandals for walking around town, relaxing at camp, and public showers, but I don’t consider it essential. My 2-bolt bike shoes are comfy enough for miles of walking, if needed.
As you can see, finding the best pedals and shoes for bikepacking and touring can be a long journey! Don’t be afraid to experiment.
More Bike Travel Resources
If you’re thinking about your bikepacking pedal situation, you might also enjoy these:
- 6 Epic Bikepacking Routes in the Western US
- Important Tips for Flying With Your Bicycle
- Essential Tools and Spares List for Bike Travelers
Or, visit the bike travel resources center for even more pedal-powered info and inspiration.
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