Some healthy advice

Most of my blog readers already know this. So although this information isn’t for that group, feel free to chime in on the subject.

I live in this apartment complex that is predominately occupied by married college students. They eat mac & cheese at night, they clip coupons before going out to eat, and they occasionally walk or ride a bike to save on gas expenditures. Because I don’t always get out of my parking lot without being seen in my spandex bike shorts, most of my neighbors think of me as a "serious" cyclist. So naturally, I get a lot of questions about "What bike should I buy?" or "Where’s a good place to mt bike around here?" or "How will it affect my self esteem to be caught wearing a bike helmet in public?" Okay, not so much of that last one. But I often get asked about what bike to buy. And just for a moment, I want to let all of you economically-jaded folk out there know something about bike purchases:

Wal-Mart is not a good place to buy bicycles

I mean it. I go to Wal-Mart for lots of items: Clif Bars, Gatorade, deoderant, etc. But I would never allow one of my family members to purchase a Wal-Mart bike. "Why not?" you ask naively. Allow me to list off just a couple of reasons:

1. While Wal-Mart bikes may be cheap (I spotted a deal on "mountain" bikes for $58 the other day), they’re actually really, well, cheap. When purchasing a bike for less than $300, I don’t even think you get what you pay for. It seems to me (and believe me, I rode a Murray for most of my teen years) that buying a 30-pound hunk-o-junker will actually result in severe dissatisfaction–which will be realized long before you expect it.

I have a neighbor who purchased a Wal-Mart bike just last year, and has since reported that it’s already falling apart. It won’t be long before it’s virtually unusable at the rate it’s going. I finally talked him into looking seriously at a Trek 4500–a very economical bike choice.

2. The people who put those things together have less experience in working with bikes than even you do, regardless of who you are, I’m sure. No really, my buddy Bry, who’s a bike shop owner, says that the vast majority of his service jobs are for recently purchased Wal-Mart bikes that were simply assembled incorrectly before they left the big blue building. He’s actually pretty tired of hearing, "I just bought this at Wal-Mart, but it’s already making this weird noise …" especially when he has some pretty reasonably priced and far superior bikes, that were all assembled correctly I might add, sitting in his shop waiting for a loving owner to pick them up. Never mind that he offers a free tune-up within a reasonable period of time when you purchase one of his.

3. If you want to upgrade from there, you have to buy a new bike. If you purchase a $450 aluminum hardtail, that frame will last you for years, and likely still be in rideable condition when you go on vacation and actually find time to ride it. Cheapo bikes have nothing worth keeping on them and won’t last through the four seasons. Kids in third-world countries would likely mount them for only a few moments before proclaiming, "I may be poor, but I’m not that poor!"

Like I said, feel free to chime in here, all you of the greater cycling world. And, at the risk of diving headfirst into cliche, remember, "Friends don’t let friends buy trashy bikes."

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28 thoughts on “Some healthy advice

  1. Jord

    I seem to remember buying a Wal-Mart bike once. It was beautiful, silver and red, full-suspention, big fatty tires. I thought I\’d recieved the greatest hunk of metal my $99 could buy. 
     
    I will add my testiment that within a month, yes, one month (I think I rode it may 6 times), it was making weird noises, the gears no longer shifted correctly, the seat was torn, the paint was wearing off because the brake cables had rubbed, and one of the shifters on the handle bars started to peal off.
     
    My $700 worth of Gary Fisher has treated me very well for the past 3 and a half years.

  2. BIg Mike In Oz

    As the former owner of a small LBS I can confirm that the month of January was always the busiest time of year, predominantly with service work on supermarket bikes.  A couple of our big chain stores only display one bike chained to the shelf and the bike you buy is still in the box with assembly instructions poorly translated from Taiwanese.
     
    On the other hand, I bought my wife a bike when we had been dating for about 6 months (early 1991) and apart from changing the drop bars to flats and replacing the chain once and tyres several times, that bike has given no grief at all.  $600 well spent and right now that translates to $40 per year.
     
    The philosophy for bike purchases is the same as most big ticket items: 
     
    You can pay now, or you can pay later – but you will pay.

  3. BIg Mike In Oz

    Oh yeah, my current fixed gear bike is also my second ever road bike, purchased in 1985 and still running the original bars, stem, seat, cranks, rims, hubs and brakes.  Brake pads, tyres, tubes, handlebar tape, cables are all considered consumables.  I have respoked the wheels 2 or 3 times and I replaced the bottom bracket this year (due to a bent axle from a fall, not through wearing out).
     
    That bike was (and still is) money well spent.  $1200 – 21 years ago.

  4. Jay

    I have recently become a big believer in the benefits of ebay bike shopping.  I  bought a bike for my wife (new in box Giant OCR 1 with full Ultegra drivetrain) on ebay, before I tell you what I paid I should tell you how we got there.  We test drove as many bikes as I could get her on (trek, specialized, canondale, giant etc…) and then I had her tell me what she liked.  I coached her on what to watch for and made sure she was comfortable and it fit right (lots of study went into that with multiple methods applied).  At the end of it all she and I came to the conclusion that she liked the Giant best…we fit her to many levels of bikes so I checked out the geometry measurements online to make sure that the fit translated accross the board.  It did.  I created a "favorite search" parameter on ebay and waited, sure enough a bike with a "best offer" and "buy it now" options came up that was from a bike seller (as opposed to someone with a one time item) and I made my offer at $650 with no shipping charges.  He took it and we got a minimum $1000 bike with just the right set up for a great price.

  5. uncadan8

    It is too bad that so many people buy bikes there and similar places. Their first experience with biking will undoubtedly be negative, and may never be overcome. So much for that positive impact on the community that the Big Boxes are supposed to have.

  6. Unknown

    My wife isn\’t a serious cyclist, but is strong and likes to ride w/ me once in a while. Her Wal-mart specail wasn\’t up to the task. So, with some spare wedding loot, we went to my LBS and got a Specialized Cross-town for $289.00. Rolls nice, shifts great, comfortable, she now sees why I buy quality gear. The old saying that a poor may can\’t afford to buy cheap really applies here. Plus, could kill you. Wouldn\’t want to trust gippo brakes in traffic or some nasty single track.

  7. Zed

    Bummer, Jord. I don\’t remember seeing this bike. You must have chucked it before I got back from Colo, eh?

    BIg Mike- I didn\’t know you were an LBS owner. That\’s awesome (even if it wasn\’t lucrative). I think it\’s a difference between buying a bike and investing in one.

    ACoug- THAT sounds like a deal. $650? That\’s less than I paid for mine, and it sounds like a pretty sweet ride. I\’m going to talk to you next time I go bike shopping. That\’s awesome.

    Dan- Jord (whose comment is at the bottom of this list) is so anti-Wal-Mart, it\’s ridiculous. He\’ll yap your ear off about how Wal-Mart is ruining communities and sapping the strength out of local economies. Heck, I didn\’t even know they claimed a positive impact.

    Boz- Yeah, you can actually get a decent bike for that $300 range, like a Trek 3700, etc. Of course, the components are usually reject parts, but they last for a while, and then you upgrade them and keep that nice solid frame–still cheaper than purchasing a new bike that will only last six months at most.

  8. uncadan8

    I seem to remember reading how they claim to actually boost the rate of business for smaller shops of every type in the communities that they infest. They claim to improve the economy by providing jobs. Of course, I don\’t know of anyone getting rich except for the CEO\’s.

  9. Scott

    I guess I\’m cheap. I bought WM bikes for my kids. I consider them to be disposable since they will outgrow the bikes anyway. (the bike, not the kids) Plus, I can do the maintenance on them myself. Now, later on when they want bikes that will last for years, we will head to the LBS.

  10. Zed

    I think that\’s an exception, PC. After all, you\’ll be replacing their bikes every couple of years anyway. Wal-Mart bikes work for riding around town when you\’re a kid. I just can\’t imagine trying to use one on the trails, though.
    Don\’t tell, but the truth is that I might do the same with my kids–at least until they get done growing.

    Dan- Yeah, ask the smaller shops about that, eh?

  11. uncadan8

    I guess the LBS would benefit (if you can call getting swamped with repairs on bikes that you didn\’t sell a benefit) from the presence of a WM. The people who will only be willing to spend a couple hundred bucks will probably still go to a WM even with a good LBS in town. I think the level of dedication is evidenced by the commitment to spending a little more.
    Psycho – Like Caloi said, kids are the exception. Unless of course they ride faster than you. You might want to think of getting something with a little more quality. Like Sears. 😉

  12. Tim D

    I think the biggest problem with the cheapo bikes is that they can put people off cycling.  You buy a cheap, heavy, badly put together bike for £99 and ride it for a week.  Its hard work, cos its heavy and the brakes rub and you have to slog up the hills in a big gear cos the gears won\’t change properly and you get covered in grease when the chain throws and you chuck the bike in the shed and get into the car.
     
    Jamie\’s well spec\’ed but still very cheap Giant 24" wheel full suss kids mountain bike is heavier and has taller gears than my Mount Vision.  I wonder why he doesn\’t like coming mountain biking with me?
     
    Tim

  13. Unknown

    Yeah, I definitely recommend the bike shop route, especially if you don\’t know what you want.  Thing is, people often really don\’t know what they will be happy on.  More than once I\’ve heard from co-workers, "I want a full suspension mountain bike, what should I buy?" (As a roadie, as if I knew…)  My response:  "No, you probably don\’t.  What are you going to use it for?"  "Riding around town… the [paved] bike trails… Maybe I\’ll go down and ride it around the beach."  Somebody like that is better off on a $300 hybrid than a cheapo full suspension MTB with shocks and forks to mess with, not very comfortable seat, inefficient pedaling on hills, etc.  Recently a couple friends looking to get back into riding have asked me what bike to get, images of Specialized Roubaixes and Cannondale Scalpel\’s in mind.  They don\’t want to race, but want to commute, maybe ride a paved trail or very easy dirt trail once in a while, ride for fitness, maybe some overnight touring if they get fit enough, do easy paced group rides or maybe ride a charity century.  Without really thinking about it, the answer is almost invariably "Surly Crosscheck.  Get the 105 STI shifters on it though, not the bar cons."  It\’s a thousand bucks of do-anything bike, especially if you get the x30 CX tires on it.  As long as you don\’t plan to compete, you can do anything you want on it pretty well – and I\’ve seen more than one Crosscheck in local road races, and a number of guys race them in CX.  Durable, relatively cheap bombers that take the place of three or four more specialized bikes, and I know a lot of guys who are great, great riders who have culled their collections down to a serious road bike plus a Crosscheck.  Or a serious MTB, plus a Crosscheck.  It\’s worth looking at good used bikes too, for everybody who buys a bike and rides it until the tires shred, there are two or three people who buy the bike, ride it twice, then put it away forever.  Yeah, $900 – $1000 for the Surly is a lot of money, but if the bike lasts nearly forever with no problems, and can take you everywhere (and makes a fair 29\’er or fixie) then it\’s hard to go wrong. 
     
    And you, ACoug, I\’d urge you to think about supporting your LBS and local bike culture next time you buy.  It\’s good to get a good deal, but it\’s better to have a good relationship with your LBS, to get invited (and invite others) on the LBS group rides, to support and perpetuate the sport.  Just a thought.

  14. Zed

    Dan- I\’m thinking that benefit is definitely outweighed by the fact that they\’re taking so much away from actual bike sales, though I\’m sure fixing junkie bikes keeps the mechanics busy.

    TimD- it\’s true, Wally bikes are probably doing more to hurt the industry than they are to help it. I admit, I used to think that anyone who would spend that kind of money on a bike was a little too hardcore … my, how times change.

    Al- Surly bikes have always looked super cool, despite the grungy paint job and the goofy web site. And that\’s a great producer to support. Don\’t be too hard on ACoug, though. If I\’m correct about his identity, there\’s no shortage of bike shops in his area, not all of which are starving for business. I can\’t say that I\’ve never chosen eBay over my local shop either. I went to ACoug\’s LBS to buy my bike instead of my LBS, simply because a friend offered me a discount down there. Still, I think my next bike will be one of his: custom ti.

  15. uncadan8

    Yeah, that\’s what I mean. Not much benefit and all the sales are being made at WM. I have started to do almost all my shopping at my LBS with the exception being the stuff like supplements, which he doesn\’t carry. And I am sure the mechanics don\’t really like working on Wally-World bikes. It is like the difference between working on a Gremlin and an Aston Martin.

  16. Tom Stormcrowe

    Ifd you genuinely can\’t afford a Trek or other, then a Wally World bike may be an option, because of the warranty service offered by Wally World. Other than that, I agree wholeheartedly! Re3member, I ride the equivalent of a Walmart bike with that Royce Union. It\’s a Sears bike instead! If you get a Walmart bike, though, you\’d better know how to work on bikes!

  17. Tom Stormcrowe

    By the way, I should mention, I tried out a Giant OCR the other day! I was stunned! I took off like I would with my heavy ol MTB?Commuter/tourer cheapie and it felt like I had a JATO unit attached! The difference in responsiveness to power was incredible! My Raleigh I just got only weighs a pound or less more than the OCR and I think I\’m going to be quite happy!

  18. Unknown

    Ok, as a former bike shop mechanic at various places, and someone who does his own maintaining of his bikes, I have a few opinions.  First, I hate WM because of what they do to all the other retailers in the towns they go to.  But their bikes are horrible.  I wholeheartedly endorse the bike shop route.  You get personal service, a bike that\’s right for you, and you start a relationship with the shop that usually turns into them knowing you and what you want, so in the future it\’s easier to help you.  Now, if you have kids growing like a weed, maybe a WM bike is ok, but it might also turn them off of riding entirely. 
     
    At this time I have three bikes.  A Specialized Allez from a few years ago with Ultegra 9spd STI on it, set up for criteriums, a custom made Schwinn Paramount OS from 1991 (that\’s right) with Ultegra STI shifters and Dura Ace brakes, derailluers, etc with Mavic wheels, and a Salsa Las Cruces cross frame with Mavic wheels and 105 STI components.  All three bikes have a specific purpose, though most of my time is on the Paramount, be it training or racing.  I want another road bike, maybe carbon, but more likely I\’ll get one from Independent Fabricators in Somerville, MA.  You can rest assured I\’ll find an authorized dealer to get that taken care of.  I guess what I\’m saying is when you get to a certain level of involvement with the sport, no one bike is perfect.  But until you hit that point, buying a bike from a bike shop that works and is backed up by the shop is pretty hard to beat.
     
    As for Ebay, well, fine you can save quite a bit of money.  However, at all the shops I worked at, both in the northeast and the midwest, if you wasted our time with test riding bikes and getting bike fit, then had the gall to bring in a bike from another shop or worse, a brand we carried, quite honestly we\’d ask you to leave.  No one wants your business that badly in my experience.  And I hate to even think of working on WM bikes.  Made of old household plumbing tubes, I swear, and the components absolutely are from recycled cans.

  19. Jay

    Wow.  I learned alot today.  Being relatively new to the sport of cycling I am constantly learning (rather quickly if I do say so myself).  So far on caloiriders blog I have learned some new things today:
     
    1.  The the idea of a free market system still hasn\’t reached the world of cylcing. (heaven forbid Lance sees this blog).  I think I would be treated better by the family in little Italy.
     
    2.  I should probably forgo my pondered future atempts to join a cylcling group (if they are like some on this blog) seeing as they would mock my bike and shun me for purchasing it at "another lbs" (who basically screwed me with faulty equipment). 
     
    3.  I should probably expect the one fingered salute when I bring bikes in for service from any shop that is not "my lbs" seeing as how they don\’t want my business anyway  (after I gave their sales people every chance to give good service and I ended up fitting my wife after their crappy recommendations).
     
     
    Gosh, I was really getting to enjoy the sport, if it weren\’t for all the people in it.  Happy riding all!

  20. Tom Stormcrowe

    Alpine, since when is it elitist to advocate using the best equipment you can? The other question I have, since when is it bad to advocate supporting local business? I provide free ad space for the LBS at my blogs, for example with entries publicising their sales and service!

  21. uncadan8

    Hmm. Seems a little hasty, Alpine. The point of this discussion (meaning everyone is entitled to their opinion), is that people who get quality bikes (generally found at the LBS, but not exclusively), will generally have a quality experience. It also stands to reason that if you buy junk and then go into a LBS and expect them to resurrect it, they will not be appreciative of your business. For example, the aforementioned Gremlin. You spend the minimum dollar, you get minimum performance. You buy the Aston, you get great performance. The Aston dealer is not going to do work on your Gremlin. The Gremlin dealer will be unable to do work on your Aston. Not every LBS is perfect. I have had some bad experiences as well. But when you walk in and the guy behind the counter actually talks to you, listens to you, and spends time with you even when there are other people in the shop, you know you have found a good shop. As for finding a good cycling group or club, that can be tricky. Just check my blog for my bad experience. Cyclists can be an elitist bunch; many of them think they are much better than they really are. But that is people for you. I think what many of the folks here are saying is that when you find a good shop that takes care of you, do your best to take care of them. A good club will do the same.

  22. Unknown

    ACoug, you missed my point entirely.  Walmart, Target, Costco (and to some extent the big boxes that sell quality bikes, like REI and to a lesser extent Performance) just sell you a bike.  They don\’t fit it, don\’t service it, and generally don\’t assemble it properly, and even if they did the quality is usually bad enough that any attempted repairs are close to impossible – the pot metal fittings strip out.  Similarly REI and Performance sell a lot of volume cheaply, but tend not to have very good mechanics, and other than selling the stuff, don\’t do much to support the sport.  The typical LBS on the other hand, or small chain of LBS\’s, is tied to the community and does a lot to support bicycling.  My LBS, just a tiny one, sponsors a bunch of BMX racers, MTB racers, recreational and charity rides, and the local training race series.  It hosts three or four different regular group rides.  It generally keeps a pot of coffee brewing at all times, and they don\’t get upset if you come in the back and watch how your bike gets fixed, and learn how to do it yourself next time.  There is a whole subculture in your local community that revolves around the bike shop and local rides, the coffee shop, and a couple other gathering places.  It isn\’t the Rotary Club, but it is a positive factor in the commmunity, and strong informal social ties within a commmunity are very important in making the community a livable place with a network of community-oriented friends and neighbors.  You lose that LBS, and the group rides mostly disappear, the community\’s several bike events each year go away, there\’s no place just around the corner to pick up a set of gloves when the dog ate yours, and yes, now REI and WalMart have more power over you as a consumer and can exercise that market power against you. 
     
    There\’s nothing wrong with the free market at all.  But when you opt for an atomistic internet bottom dollar sale, or you opt for the big box store, you should be mindful of the market power you are helping the big box accumulate, and of the externalities, the missed opportunity to invest money in your own neighborhood.  Hey, I get some stuff off the web – if I need jerseys, it\’s a web order, or most of the nutritionals – since it\’s not profitable for a small local to stock a lot of that stuff.  But I\’ve built a good relationship with the LBS.  If I need a part at 6:00 AM because I just broke something loading up the car for a race, I can call the LBS owner and he\’ll hustle down to the shop and hook me up.  He doesn\’t carry the bike I\’m eyeballing for my next racer, but said "if you want it, I\’ll order 7 or 8 – that\’s the minimum they\’ll let me carry – you take yours, I\’ll retail or part out the rest."  My kid, who will reach bicycling age pretty soon, will probably ride in the BMX league the LBS sponsors.  It\’s not that you have to support the LBS, just that doing so builds a better bike culture and a better commmunity generally.  WalMart, REI and the big boxes are great.  But they intentionally crush the competition by underselling the mom & pop stores and marginalizing them, and I\’d rather be thought an ass by other cyclists and bring the issue up, than watch the LBS\’s disappear, and then try to answer some idiot\’s question about "how come REI only has these 19 year-old nitwits working on my bike, and why aren\’t there any good group rides around here?" 
    I\’d rather pay 15% more up front and reap the benefits later on.  You are obviously free to do otherwise. 
     
    Tom – Agreed on the OCR.  That\’s why I bought it.  With the rigid, compact frame, it is a very efficient bike for a big guy and accellerates like a rocket.  It felt like a road bike ideally ought to feel.  Of course it is also very, very tough on bumpy roads, but then until I\’m at carbon frame weight, that\’s something I can live with.   

  23. Unknown

    Man, I gotta start working less and blogging more! I missed all the action!I got a department store bike from my LBS last winter. It was a bike that someone had brought in for repairs and then never picked up. The LBS gave it to me for the price of the repairs ($30.00). I wanted the bike for riding to the train station; I\’d leave the bike locked up outside, so I wanted a bike I didn\’t mind getting snowed and rained on and that if it got stolen it wouldn\’t be a big deal. I wound up working on that bike a couple times a week to keep it in proper order. The bottom bracket wouldn\’t stay tight and the same went for the rear hub and the headset. The brakes litterally didn\’t work. I tried chaning the pads and even abraded the rims, to no avail. I eventually got a super cheap set of v-brakes to put on the bike. The wheels were just amazing; how can anything that heavy be that weak?Anyway, the experience taught me a lesson, and the department store bike was worse than I expected. I wound up giving it away after a few months, because I couldn\’t take it anymore.Botched

  24. michael

    Al, ACoug, Tom- I think it\’s safe to say that most of us have pleasant experiences at the LBS, and that\’s why we go back, but there are exceptions. If I\’d been given a bad deal from my LBS at some point, I probably wouldn\’t be doing business there. At least ACoug attempted the LBS route before going to eBay. Though I must admit that I\’m excited to see that Trek superstore open up in his area.
    You\’ve got to admit, though, that if a waitress is rude or messes up your order at a restaurant, you\’re less apt to return there the next time your wife says, "Let\’s go out to eat tonight." Same principle.

    Botched- It\’s all good, someone got a free bike out of the deal. Personally, I hate doing any kind of work on my friends\’ WM bikes because you just never know how crappy it really is before you dig in.

    Mike- I think that\’s a legit point, also made by TimD, that riding WM bikes can push people away from the sport. The trouble, I think, is that when you\’re a WM bike rider, you don\’t know it gets any better than that. I alway thought people who spent decent amounts of money on bikes were just rich or yuppies or something, until I spent a decent amount on a bike.

  25. Jay

    I have to say that I have enjoyed some of the banter for the past 24 hrs.  I have also not been letting all of you in on my private emails with caloirider.  So I thought I might share a few tid bits for discussion:
    These are all my comments:
    Email:
     " …I have pretty thick skin (a little sarcasm doesn\’t mean I was offended).  I have worked in comission sales for years and have felt the same feelings that these guys have felt.  I can\’t say I blame them.   I have learned however that the laws of supply and demand and the power of the free market economy cannot be tamed and if you try or expect to you do it at your peril (as a business owner).  The market is all powerful and deserves a little humility and respect in the face of it.  Unfortunately, most people in sales never learn that.  If they did, they would master the art of profiting from the market instead of always being at the mercy of it.  When you expect to sell your product at a higher than market price (ebay truly is the closest to "market" in a free market system) and not allow the freedom to shop then you are gluttin\’ for punishment and quite frankly deserve to go out of business.  You are not meeting the markets needs.  BTW, I bet each one of these guys has sold a used bike at some point in the name of buying a new one…hmmm how is that different?"
    Another email:
    "I can tell you this it is a way complicated issue when you start looking at the ramifications of ebay on the lbs.  It isn\’t all bad for the lbs crowd either.  If I am not mistaken, the money is in the service not the bike sales (long term) and ebay only proliferates that (& Wal Mart for that matter).  Ebay does what it does well and the lbs does what it does well and I think (the lbs) will evolve into service shops with clubs and less bikes, gear, and accessories.   For a shop that doesn\’t carry Giant and would\’ve lost out anyway (on my wifes bike), the service is a boon."
     
    Another recent email: 
    "(This conversation) reminds me of the bike shop junkies in Laguna Beach (my brother lives there). I stepped into their bikeshop and found no prices. I quickly realized that there was a reason for that. There were two pricing structures. One for the tourists and one for the elitist locals. I was sized up in a few moments and was left to fend for myself. I left that shop in a hurry. If I wasn\’t a local or a big ticket sale I wasn\’t worth their time or attention. I could do without a lot of the culture of biking.
    Can I just say I have never seen so many posers in my life as Laguna Beach. One Saturday while I was there thousands of riders. They were everywhere. There was a juiceshop with 250 bike stalls in front completely full and spilling over with all the latest in lbs style. I saw riders with their "team" uniforms ride one block in a pack (there were dozens of packs & hundreds of riders) to the next PCH stoplight and then wait and do it again. The highway itself was never a highway, just a never ending row of stoplights. There was no way to get in a real workout. The only thing left to do was just be a "poser" with your expensive bike and head to toe matching gear. I was left wondering where all the real cyclists had gone. So Cal wasn\’t exactly bike friendly. I was also realizing just how lucky I was to have the seemingly endless roads to ride on around here."
     
    Just a few thoughts to chew on.

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