It's Not Easy to Be Honest

It's Not Easy to Be Honest

I used to wonder why manufacturers offer things that are popular, even though they don’t work well. I recently read an interview with a BMW engineer, who complained about the huge wheels that the company now puts on their cars. It turns out the large (and heavy) wheels ruin the car’s dynamics, making it drive less well than it would otherwise. “Customers like them, though,” the engineer said. BMW faced a choice of making a better car, or giving customers what they want. They chose the latter.
BMW isn’t the only company that follows trends rather than setting them. Almost everything these days, from soap dispensers to political messages, is focus-grouped, rather than made with conviction. When somebody complains, they hear: “What do you want? Customers asked for it.”
To me, that sounds like a sorry excuse. After all, we pay experts because we don’t know the answers ourselves. How many car buyers are aware of the compromises they incur when specifying larger wheels? (Larger wheels allow you to fit bigger brakes inside, which is why sports cars used to have larger wheels than other cars. However, the increase in unsprung mass compromises comfort and handling.) And how many customers would choose differently if they knew?
I don’t have to think too hard to realize why this is upsetting to me: I want the best! I want a great, responsive ride in a car. I want the same in a bike, and that is why Compass Bicycles doesn’t compromise on our products.
At Compass Bicycles, we do a lot of research that guides our product development. Our research isn’t “market research,” but research into how bicycles and components work. Then we try to communicate our findings to our customers. Unlike most car companies, we sell to enthusiasts who are knowledgeable about what makes a bike perform. This makes our job easier.
I can see the temptation to follow the path of least resistance. Consider our René Herse crank project, where we made a number of decisions that we feel improved the product, but which go against popular opinion:

Crank length: Traditionally, cranks have been offered in multiple, yet very similar lengths, from 165 to 175 mm. (The montage above shows that range. The cranks look similar because they are similar: The longest crank is just 6% longer than the shortest one.)
Large makers use separate forgings for each length, but small makers use one forging with extra material, and then machine the cranks to the desired length. This interrupts the grain structure of the aluminum and weakens the cranks.
For the René Herse cranks, we use a net-shape forging with a perfect grain structure. This means that our cranks are available in one length only, but on the upside, our cranks passed the stringent EN “Racing Bike” standard for fatigue resistance (EN 14781). I know of no other small-production crank that has passed this test.
It may take a little time for cyclists to give up a long-held belief, but in the end, I am confident that our customers prefer a stronger crank, even if it means riding a crank that is 2% shorter or 3% longer than what they usually ride.

Chainring ramps: Chainring ramps only work for matched pairs of rings, and even then it is debatable how much they contribute to better shifting. (Above are two random shifts: One used the ramp, the other did not.)
The René Herse cranks are available with a huge selection of chainrings, so you can get gearing that is perfectly matched to your strength and riding style. This means that we cannot offer matched pairs of rings.
Many aftermarket chainrings aren’t designed as matched pairs, either, and instead feature “cosmetic” ramps that don’t do much. Such a “make-believe” feature is counter to our beliefs. Instead, we optimized the chainring tooth profiles for smoother shifting with any chainring combination. But many customers still wonder why our chainrings don’t have ramps.
Anodized arms: Anodizing still is seen by many as a sign of quality. It protects the finish of aluminum parts, but only until it gets worn off where toestraps or booties touched the arms, to say nothing of scratches. Then the cranks look scruffy, and the aluminum isn’t protected any longer.
The René Herse cranks use a corrosion-resistant alloy that does not need to be protected from the elements. Even after several Colorado winters, customers report that their cranks remain shiny and bright. And if they get scratched, you can re-polish them.

Stainless steel crank bolts: Many people love stainless steel. It’s shiny and does not rust.  What’s not to like? Most people don’t realize that stainless steel is more brittle and not as strong as other steels. We make our crank bolts from strong steel and then have them chrome-plated, so you can can rely on your crank bolts.
We stand behind these choices, which make our cranks stronger, better-looking and more versatile than they would be otherwise. Even so, I know we sell fewer cranks than we would otherwise: Some customers will be turned away because the cranks aren’t available in “their” length, or they want ramped chainrings, anodized arms, and/or stainless steel bolts.
Why didn’t we take the path of least resistance and offer what customers want? We’d save money during production, we’d save time explaining, and we’d sell more cranks.
The reason is simple: We ride these cranks on our own bikes, and we wouldn’t want them compromised in any way. We want the best, and fortunately, we have the freedom to make our components the way we want them.

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Comments (89)

  • Rod Bruckdorfer

    Our tandem, as are most tandems today, is fitted with FSA tandem cranks. They may look nice and are relatively inexpensive. After 6,500 miles, I just finished replacing the time chainrings and both FSA bottom brackets. The chainrings on the drive side are also showing wear. I might understand the fast wear if we were crank-mashers but we are spinners and keep the chains lubricated and clean. My general thought, is the metal is too soft.
    Based on my Rene Herse Cranks, which are awaiting my Boulder Brevet, I doubt if I would have had this problem with RH tandem cranks and SKF bottom bracket.

    June 11, 2013 at 9:39 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We use 7000-series aluminum for our chainrings, which is the hardes and longest-wearing material short of steel. They are anodized, because 7000-series does corrode…

      June 11, 2013 at 10:01 am
  • norbikes

    re. “…the stringent EN “Racing Bike” standard for fatigue resistance (EN 14781)”—–how many of us have ever broken a crank arm, for pete’s sake?!? Why give up a choice of crank arm lengths for the sake of some strength overkill? You are addressing a manufactured concern, not a real life one—-sorry.
    Nor in Iowa

    June 11, 2013 at 9:41 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I know at least three riders who have broken crankarms. They weren’t even super-strong riders, just had a slightly more forceful pedal stroke.

      June 11, 2013 at 10:01 am
      • Greg

        The crank arm strength concern is not an issue if you have forging dies for each length. Problem solved (yes, it costs money, I know)…
        … and Jan brings up an excellent point. Some very small subset of all riders breaks things, usually lots of things over time, not just crank arms, and it doesn’t seem to relate directly to size, or strength, or even cadence. I’ve looked into this phenomenon previously, more than once. A very, very small percentage of riders will often break crank arms of various types, bottom bracket spindles, frames (!), stems, handlebars, pedals, seat posts, saddle rails, and on and on. Not sure why, but I would guess that something in their pedal force circle fatigues parts way faster than everyone else does? It is odd, really. We need data!

        June 11, 2013 at 10:59 am
    • Doug

      I’ve broken a crank and crashed as a result.
      Granted, it was a thirty year old Japanese knockoff of an Italian design with a known stress riser. But the fact remains: it broke.

      June 11, 2013 at 11:51 am
    • Edward

      I broke a crank on a poorly spec’d folding bike years ago. Predictably, I was standing up in mid-downstroke. The resulting crash was quite painful and would have been vastly more dangerous if there had been cars around. Not a manufactured concern in my book.

      June 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm
    • Bruce (@Sacchoromyces)

      I have too. Snapped it off at the pedal hole.

      June 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        We have 5 readers who’ve broken a crankarm. Today, the blog has had 1150 “unique” readers so far, which would confirm Greg’s estimate of 0.5% of riders breaking a crank at some point. Of course, not all readers who broke a crank will comment, so the real number probably is higher. It’s not that common, but it’s not negligible, either.
        In our testing bikes for Bicycle Quarterly, I’ve had a few heart-stopping failures. A light that fell off and dangled in the spokes. A fender that came loose at the fork crown and wrapped around the front wheel. Those were the worst (most dangerous), and I don’t want any more of that!

        June 11, 2013 at 2:30 pm
    • Donovan

      I have broken four crankarms and it always happens at inoppurtune times, such as standing up to roll over a rise in the road and other times of high stress. I can tell you, breaking a crank at high speed is no fun! These were high quality cranks and I’m a spinner not a masher.

      June 11, 2013 at 2:40 pm
    • Fred Blasdel

      Square taper cranks used to break all the time, the classic TA/Campagnolo design combined with the materials and manufacturing of the day meant that with heavy use fatigue would take it’s toll. Some riders like Jobst Brandt broke them by the dozen!
      Even current high quality Sugino square taper cranks still break occasionally, and they aren’t under nearly as many hard riders as they used to be.
      Modern high end external-bearing cranks appear to be breaking less, but they still can suffer from the classic failure at the pedal eye. That interface could be improved, but its problems only show up in hard long term use, and a standards change is effectively impossible.

      June 11, 2013 at 5:00 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The Campagnolo cranks broke due to a few design flaws that could have been eliminated. If a rider broke dozens of them and continued to use them… one wonder why they didn’t switch to a better-engineered, more reliable model.
        Overall, square taper cranks have an excellent durability record. Neither the original Herse cranks nor the 170 mm TA Pro 5 vis have experienced many failures, and the Stronglight 49D also has an excellent reliability record. Consider that many of these cranks have been used hard for decades…
        Modern cranks have a lot more material, and thus eliminate some weak spots, especially at the transition from the pedal eye to the crankarm. The downside is the extra weight and bulky appearance. (There is no transition any longer, as the arm is as wide as the pedal eye.)
        Our goal was to create a classic, lightweight crank that can pass the most stringent EN standard (“racing bikes”, the “trekking/city bike” standard is a lot easier) in honest testing. (We tested at the Swiss SGS lab, which has the best reputation in the business.) Thanks to net-shape forging and a few other tweaks, we managed to do this. This doesn’t mean that our cranks are 100% failure-proof, but we feel they are as good as it gets.

        June 11, 2013 at 5:12 pm
    • Steve Palincsar

      Well, I don’t know about you but I’ve broken 4 crank arms, all while commuting, and 2 at the exact same latitude/longitude, at the traffic light on Maine Ave at the Tidal Basin. I got lucky with those two at the light: just came down hard on my right foot and didn’t fall. Not so lucky the other two times, and especially not lucky with the crank that broke on 15th St. right in front of the Washington Monument. I had the light when I went down – hard – onto the pavement. When the light changed, VROOM right at me. I had to scramble to drag myself and the bike out of the roadway before they ran me over, leaving a big smeared blood trail all over the pavement.

      June 11, 2013 at 7:19 pm
    • Chris L

      I’ve broken two crank arms. First was a Ritchey Logic (the first model they made) which cracked at the spindle hole. The second was a Campy crank that cracked at the pedal hole.

      June 12, 2013 at 11:31 am
      • Stephen

        That does surprise me. The Ritchey cranks have way more material at the spindle end than most cranks, and it appears to be oriented so as to increase the amount of material outside the corners of the spindle, i.e., to reduce the likelihood of deformity there. I have several assorted RItchey cranks and have not broken one (yet).
        The only crank I’ve ever broken was one of the early Avocet triple cranks (144/(x)/74 PCD), which failed at the pedal eye. Examination afterwards showed that the surface of the crank was not perpendicular to the pedal hole for roughly 50% of the circumference, and thus not supporting the flange on the pedal properly. I suspected the problem had been caused by excessive polishing, and duly sent the cranks back with an explanatory note, and received replacements which had been beefed up considerably around that area. Before that was done the cranks had a conspicuously smaller-than-normal amount of metal there. One always hopes people have done their homework before products are released, but it is not always the case. (I’m sure Jan has!)

        June 12, 2013 at 10:07 pm
  • Greg

    I can amplify the BMW (automobile) comments a bit….
    I have been a BMW car owner for the past 31 years, having owned perhaps fifteen in total, over that time period, from rust-bucket 1970s 2002s to my three current vehicles, one of which is an M5. I am indeed saddened by almost all of the current trends at BMW, which are increasing the sales and profits short-term, but dangerously diluting the brand long-term. The too-far-oversized wheels are only one aspect of that. BMW has gone from something like fourteen total models to more like forty-five now, just since about 1998! They are creating (often silly) niches, at this point. The styling became extremely ugly, but eventually they did fire Chris Bangle (creator of the awful ‘Bangle Butt”), and are slowly working their styling back to some semblance of reasonable. BMW is very slowly becoming a nice German Buick, basically. They sell very well in China, where they sell a stretched-Three Series in significant volumes.
    The old guard, fifty-something enthusiast drivers like me lament most of what is happening to BMW, and we have made our voices loud and clear on these issues, primarily through BMW CCA, to mostly (but not entirely) no avail. The street reputation of the current BMWs, as being driven primarily by a-holes is also sad, but not at all without merit. One of our local BMW club members summed it up quite well recently, in my opinion: “the products followed the marketing — ironically, what made the brand unique and so appealing to the ‘upwardly mobile’ to begin with started its long road to irrelevance that persists to this day. Unfortunately, the residue of reactionary marketing thirty years ago still lingers to this day and enthusiast owners have to deal with the fallout.”
    I must say that I still can’t agree that ‘one size fits all’ in the crankset department, though. If that is true, then we should all just use 10 cm. stems! It would greatly simplify stem manufacturing. 😉

    June 11, 2013 at 9:52 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I must say that I still can’t agree that ‘one size fits all’ in the crankset department, though. If that is true, then we should all just use 10 cm. stems! It would greatly simplify stem manufacturing.

      What would you say if we offered 95 mm stem, 97.5 mm stems, 100 mm stems, 102.5 mm stems and 105 mm stems? That would actually cover a greater range than the lengths most crank makers offer.
      Grand Bois stems are offered in lengths between 60 and 110 mm. The longest is almost twice as long as the shortest. If you argued that you need a 200 mm crank, and the 171 mm we offer is 20% too short, I might accept that. But to say you need a 175 mm, and ours is 2% too short looks like splitting hairs, even if it’s how it has been done traditionally.

      June 11, 2013 at 10:06 am
      • Greg

        Just to remind y’all, forged aluminum cranks were/are available from as short as 115 mm to about 220 mm, not just from 165 to 175….. I have a very nice 115 mm Gipiemme crank sitting on my desk right now as I type. Yes, the most common range is 165 to 175 or sometimes 180, but remember that weird French company called TA, or something like that? Lots of lengths were made (and yes, not all in dedicated forging dies, I know. I have zero concerns about that…). Long live the 175s! Torque to the people! 🙂

        June 11, 2013 at 11:10 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          TA’s experience caused us to go with a net-shape forging. Alain Breuil, the owner told me that in the old days, they had two forging dies:
          – One net-shape die for 170 mm cranks. Back then, most riders used 170 mm, and it was easier not having to machine the cranks to length.
          – The other die had extra material for all the other lengths from 150 until 180 mm. (The raw forging is here.) The cranks were machined to length.
          Monsieur Breuil told me that they never had a 170 mm crank break, but that the other lengths had broken once in a while, despite being made in much smaller numbers. This made me decide that a net-shape forging was a better way to go. (Ironically, when TA resurrected their classic Pro 5 vis cranks, they made only one forging for all lengths. I know of one of the recent-production cranks that broke.)

          June 11, 2013 at 11:19 am
    • Greg

      Jan, I agree. There should be dedicated forging dies for each length. That’s just good Engineering/manufacturing practice. However, it is important to keep things in perspective. Very, very few of those non-170 TA cranks broke, as a percentage of production (if not, they would have stopped making them!), and I’d wager almost all were at very high mileage. It’s not like 50% or even 5% of them broke, it was a very small percentage, perhaps 0.2% or so, I’d guess….

      June 11, 2013 at 11:32 am
      • Dave Ross

        I broke a brand new 175mm TA left hand crank some years ago, about 1/2″ away from the pedal spindle. It might not be common, but it is devastating when it happens and I for one don’t want to experience that again. I didn’t crash, but I come face-to-face with the front of an approaching vehicle – something I won’t forget in a hurry.
        So whilst I, with an inseam of 36″, am pondering if I would want to invest in a 171mm crank, I can perfectly understand Jan’s reticence to cut corners and make an inferior product. Crank breakages are rare, but when it happens…

        June 11, 2013 at 1:04 pm
    • ascpgh

      Interesting to see how easily the same happens at car companies farther down the food chain of performance from BMW; Toyota did the same oversize wheel/tire thing with their Venza, right out of the gate with the new design. No concern for decreased performance from the rotational inertia of the huge mass or from the elevated unsprung weight the suspension has to handle.
      My wife’s BMW has 16″ wheels. Thankfully the negative impetus for the large wheels to match the large watches favored by the “a-holes” buying the cars is resolving. Several sources repeat that they are lately attracted to Audis (Jeremy Clarkson/Top Gear, U.K.). A subject pertinent to Tuesday night’s ride after which several of us settled at the Belgian pub around the corner from our start point and the subject of the V-8 sound of current Audis and M-Bs came up. It was observed that they sound more like Detroit pushrod V-8s than the Detroit V-8s of late, not in a good way. Cars being prepared for “cocks” (in the U.K. usage).
      We also noted that three bikes on our ride were painted by Joe Bell. One of our group also maintains an apartment above the Condor cycles shop in London. The Belgian beers, poutine, moules frites went far to stimulate the breadth of conversations after a rousing 27 miles of hill climbing and parks in our urban route.
      Looks like Derecho weather in the morning for the commute. May use the Seal Line bag inside my Nelson Longflap. No way to keep dry so it’ll be about the easiest to dry clothing I’ll change out of when I get there.

      June 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm
  • Patrick Moore

    Your remark about focusing on the good of the product and not on market trends reminds me of Grant Petersen, long ago: “We are product driven, not market driven”. (And of Aquinas — paraphrasing: finem artis est bonum rei faciendae” — the end (purpose) of an art is the good (perfection) of the thing to be made.) Keep it up.
    I don’t know about other people, but I find the 5 mm additional length of 175 mm cranks annoying when spinning fast. *I* can tell a difference there.

    June 11, 2013 at 10:20 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I used to think the same, until I rode a bike with 175 mm cranks that had the same tread (Q factor) as my own bike, and I couldn’t tell the difference.

      June 11, 2013 at 10:23 am
    • Greg

      Patrick, how tall are you? No one is saying that everyone should ride longer cranks (well, except perhaps for Lennard Zinn, but he’s a, uh…, crank-y guy). I’m 6’2″ and I’m sorry, but I refuse to go back to the misery of 170s on my road bikes. Do you folks think that an eight-footer should ride 170s? Just askin’…..

      June 11, 2013 at 11:15 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        175 mm cranks won’t be good for eight-footers. They might need 220 mm cranks, and I applaud any maker who offers them.
        For us, we are a very small maker, and amortizing just one crank forging die takes a long time. Amortizing half a dozen to offer proportional cranks for outliers in the general riding population would be very difficult to do without raising prices through the roof.

        June 11, 2013 at 11:29 am
      • Greg

        It would be three dies, not several. One is already complete, so only two remain. I would strongly recommend doing the 175 die next, not only so I could use RH cranks, but because you will sell far more 175s than 165s.

        June 11, 2013 at 11:37 am
      • Stephen

        If you offered 175mm cranks next (as Greg suggests) it’s also possible you might also sell some to mountain bikers, most of whom use 175mm cranks. Current trends seem to be towards 29″ wheels and there is thus a demand for smaller chainwheels, which the RH cranks could meet more easily than most.

        June 12, 2013 at 10:16 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The one thing the Rene Herse cranks aren’t designed for (and tested for) are big jumps. Jumps (not small ones to jump over cracks in the road, but big drop-offs) put stresses on a crank that don’t occur in “normal” riding. So I’d be wary to put our cranks on mountain bikes.

          June 13, 2013 at 6:06 am
          • Stephen

            Fair enough! BTW, I’ve just been reading your excellent book “The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles” and thought the Rene Herse bikes looked particularly elegant. I suspect this was because of the cranks, which are much pettier than any of the others illustrated.

            June 13, 2013 at 6:57 am
          • David Pearce

            You must be “weary” — I know, I know, you sweat the details so we don’t have to! — but I’m PRETTY sure you mean WARY of mountain bike crank applications! 🙂

            June 13, 2013 at 7:11 am
          • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

            Thanks – I fixed the typo.

            June 13, 2013 at 7:29 am
  • Ty

    I completely agree about the crank length. I have never understood the need for 2.5mm differences in length. I would like to see the results of a double blind test to see how many riders could distinguish between a 170 and a 172.5 on otherwise identical bikes. I would be shocked if riders could reliably distinguish between the two.

    June 11, 2013 at 10:22 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We’ve been thinking about this test. Problem is, around here, nobody thinks they can tell the difference any longer. Mark has 175s on his bike, mine have 170s and 171s, and I don’t even know what Hahn rides. We swap bikes, and they all feel the same.
      So we’d have to get Greg or Patrick to Seattle. Since you cannot prove the absence of something, even if they couldn’t tell in a double-blind test, there would be others who’d say: “Ah, they might not be able to tell, but I can!” So we’d invite them to do the test, and so on…
      Or maybe we’d be surprised, and Greg and Patrick really can tell the difference – I won’t exclude the possibility that they are that fine-tuned to their pedal strokes. Even then, the question is whether it’s OK to have their pedals turn on a circle that is 2% larger or smaller.

      June 11, 2013 at 10:29 am
      • Fred Blasdel

        I think I stand a very good chance of being able to pick each length out of a lineup, especially if the saddle setback and type is kept constant.
        The main reason I ride longer cranks is to normalize where my butt wants to be with the rest of the population (and how bikes are designed for them)

        June 11, 2013 at 4:43 pm
    • Greg

      I agree. I think that cranks should be made every five mm from 165 to 175. That’s only three unique sizes. This is in fact what smart manufacturers like Stronglight did for decades on most of their products. Most folks can’t tell the difference between two cranks that are 2.5 different in length. I use 175s, but I will ride 172.5 or 177.5 in a pinch. I will NOT, however, ride 170s, or 180s. To say that 170 fits everyone fine is just plain silly, to be honest!

      June 11, 2013 at 10:47 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I will ride 172.5 in a pinch. I will NOT, however, ride 170s

        What about our 171 mm cranks? 😉
        I think 10 mm (7%) steps would make more sense. (Generally, anything less than 5% doesn’t seem to matter, whether it’s gearing, stem length or what have you.)
        Maybe some day, we’ll add 161 and 181 mm to our line. It would require two additional forging dies, but since we plan to offer these cranks for a long time, we might be able to amortize the cost. Except that there seems to be little demand for what most people consider ultra-long and ultra-short cranks.

        June 11, 2013 at 10:54 am
      • Greg

        Jan, I’m afraid you would sell almost zero of those 161 and 181 mm cranks, for multiple reasons. I would not recommend that approach at all. I sell lots of cranksets, and I sell very, very few 165s, mostly 175, 170, and 172.5, in about that order, iirc. I still say that 165, 170, and 175 make the most sense. If you want to skip the 170, OK, but you already have tooling for that length! 😉
        The other issue here (which hasn’t been mentioned) is ground clearance. To run 180s, or even 177.5s, you really need to build the frame to accomodate them. Pedal strike can be a major concern with very long cranks on a frame that wasn’t designed for them. That’s why stems can vary so much – they won’t hit anything or cause a crash, even at 140 mm vs. 40 mm. for a super-short one….

        June 11, 2013 at 11:23 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You are right, we’d sell next to zero of the lengths that make sense, and lots of the lengths that don’t make sense. Which brings us back to the topic of this blog post: Do we make what is popular or what makes sense?

          June 11, 2013 at 11:35 am
      • Greg

        Incorrect logic, sorry. Facts are facts. Everyone is entitled to their own set of opinions, but not their own set of facts. Well, unless you are Fox…..

        June 11, 2013 at 11:40 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I am not sure I understand, since I agree with your facts – we’d sell more 175s than 180s. I add my opinion, which is that 180s make more sense.
          Speaking of facts: BMW is selling more cars now than they did when you loved the cars. By that metric, bigger wheels were the right thing to do.

          June 11, 2013 at 11:54 am
      • Greg

        I give up. You win. Those of us that ride anything other than 171 mm cranks are apparently blissfully ignorant. Silly us! 🙂
        BMW is selling more vehicles lately for multiple reasons, the real world is very complex, and you can’t just cherry-pick which data you choose to believe, and ignore the rest. Unless that’s your MO, I guess….
        I wouldn’t kick a brand-new e90 M3 out of bed for eating crackers, fwiw, but most of the rest of their current vehicles do not suit my needs or even desires, and that M3 now costs nearly 100,000 USD ‘out the door’ -ouch.

        June 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          If there is no functional difference, then why not pick the length you like best? However, when I have a choice between a classic TA crank in 170 mm (net shape forged) and a 172.5 mm (machined to length), I know I pick the 170 mm, even though “my” size is 172.5 mm.
          Apart from that, this isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about two things: 1. If rider’s leg lengths vary by 30%, why do we commonly vary crank lengths by only 7%? 2. What is the smallest increment of crank length that makes a difference.
          I haven’t found an answer to 1., and we can agree to disagree on 2., can’t we?

          June 11, 2013 at 1:15 pm
        • David Pearce

          Wow, an M3 for about $100,000 US?!
          That’s ridiculous.
          I haven’t owned any, but I have admired some others from afar, vis.: the 2002tii, the 528i, some others for sure, the Bavaria, etc.
          But I recall getting really disgruntled about all this “upselling”, stuffing larger engines in smaller cars. It seemed proper to me that the 3-series should have an Four, the 5-series a Six and the 7-series a V8.
          I thought it was an abomination to stuff a V8 into an M3!
          And still do! So there! 🙂

          June 11, 2013 at 4:07 pm
      • Fred Blasdel

        “The other issue here (which hasn’t been mentioned) is ground clearance. To run 180s, or even 177.5s, you really need to build the frame to accomodate them. Pedal strike can be a major concern with very long cranks on a frame that wasn’t designed for them.”
        As someone who uses them, this is not true. Small differences in your choice of pedal (especially width) are a far bigger influence in pedal strike until they get over 185mm.

        June 11, 2013 at 4:47 pm
      • Stephen

        In my case, I have 170, 172.5 and 175mm cranks, and have also tried 165, 178 and 180mm. I’m not sure I could immediately tell you the crank length without checking the markings, but I can fairly quickly tell if I am more or less comfortable; with 180mm cranks this was instantly apparent. (They came on an early MTB – on all sizes!)
        My experience has been that 172.5mm is the most comfortable (for me) except on the fixed wheel where 170mm helps on fast descents. Whilst I prefer 172.5mm on MTBs, 175mm is okay, and is much easier to get.
        I’m sure that 171mm is a perfectly sensible crank length, splitting as it does the difference between 170 and 172.5mm, two of the most common/popular lengths.
        Whilst I have seen many assertions that “nobody can tell a difference of x in crank length,” I’ve found that changing the length by 5mm has required significant readjustment time on my part, and that 10mm change was very difficult to tolerate at all. There is no doubt that some people are more sensitive than others – to many things – but I’m inclined to think stem length is a poor comparison. Cranks are typically turned between ~60-120 rpm for most people but one’s upper body does nothing similar, and thus the likelihood of overuse injuries from repetitive movements there is vastly lower there.

        June 12, 2013 at 10:34 pm
  • Jim V

    ….One of the most well conceived and executed components I have ever purchased. I have been riding 175’s for years, after five minutes I could barely tell the difference and after a few outings – no perceptible difference at all. Light in weight, beautiful in appearance, flawless shifting and very strong, the thought and effort that went into making these cranks available is greatly appreciated.

    June 11, 2013 at 10:29 am
  • Mike Jenkins

    A couple of years ago, I broke the LH crank on my city bike while visiting another city. I was many miles away from my hotel, but only walking distance from a used parts store, similar to Recycled Cycles. They had no 170 crank in stock, but had a 165 which I purchased and rode for the rest of the week. At first I was concerned that I would ride in circles, but eventually forgot about the unequal crank length. One of these days I’ll get around to replacing the crank. Maybe when the BB wears out.

    June 11, 2013 at 11:00 am
  • Will Morris

    The only thing preventing me from committing to one of your cranks is my worry about replacement chainrings. I’m fine investing in a high-quality component that will last, but am nervous about being dependent on a single person as my only source of replacement parts. What is your take on that?

    June 11, 2013 at 11:17 am
  • Tony

    I think car companies like BMW are trying to make their vehicles look like the exaggerated pretend cars in video games and cartoons. (Life imitating art??) As for your Herse cranks, I am saving up to purchase a set; they are stunning! I used to race on 175mm cranks, but over the last few years my bikes have either 172.5 or 170 arms. I can tell the (subtle) difference between 175 and 170, but I really can’t between my 172.5 and 170’s. (My 175’s and 170’s are the same model by the same manufacturer, so Q-factor isn’t the issue). I have seen cranks snap (and bottom brackets, and stems, etc., etc.), so I don’t think your quality standards are over-kill.

    June 11, 2013 at 11:27 am
  • David Pearce

    I like your point about giving up old “long held beliefs”.
    I have given up clipless pedals on both my mountain bike and my Bromptom, replacing the Shimano SPD’s with the V-O Sabot pedals for the former and some V-O city pedal for the latter, with half toe-clips. No plastic for me! Ugh, I really hate plastic at the moment, always cracks, ages: disgusting!
    And I couldn’t be happier having stopped using clipless pedals, even though I was a clipless-snob for so long.
    So, on your recommendation, I have received from you the Grand Bois 650b x 42mm tires, in red, and your hammered fenders, for “my” style of randonneur I’m building on a V-O Polyvalent frame. I never, ever, ever, thought I would run tires that wide, but we shall see! Time to change old habits and try something new? I like the idea of being able to go on small gravel paths, etc.
    I say “my” style of randonneur because I’m building it with an eBay 1998 Campy Veloce Triple 9-speed Groupset with ErgoPower shifters (off of a Trek carbon bike that was de-laminating, no less. More plastic?….). I know ErgoPower brifters are not “kosher” on a randonneur bike, but this is my bike, and the way I’m used to it, and I think we should not eschew new technology and modernity in the cause of classicism.
    I’ll let you know how it goes, which is slowly! Because I have to get my Sister’s family back on their bikes and teach the two youngest children (out of four) how to bike. Imagine, a 10- and a 7-year-old not knowing how to bike! But the 10-year-old is a marker: I guess by time you have three children it is hard for a modern family to keep biking? I guess it takes a childless Uncle to get people on wheels again!
    Thanks, Jan.

    June 11, 2013 at 11:31 am
  • Phil

    Jan, can you speak to the environment concerns of chroming? I agree in your choice of metals, in using a stronger steel than stainless, but chroming has serious environmental issues, does it not?

    June 11, 2013 at 11:45 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Chrome-plating does have environmental concerns. Waste disposal is a concern, as is worker safety. Our bolts are made in Taiwan, in a factory that meets their laws (which appear to be more stringent than Mexicos and many other places). Stainless steel also has environmental impacts.
      I feel that the best way to limit environmental impact is to make products that will last a long time, rather than inexpensive stuff that will be replaced soon.

      June 11, 2013 at 11:51 am
      • ascpgh

        Nickel. The same reason a Hybrid car is an awful environmental construct because of the amount nd refinement the material requires to be made into it’s batteries. It’s what makes stainless non-magnetic and should be the plating prior to the chrome if to be durable.

        June 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm
  • Scott G.

    I had a TA Zephyr left arm crack at the pedal eye and a TA Axix bb spindle break on the right side.
    Arm cracked at 22,000 miles.

    June 11, 2013 at 12:59 pm
  • marmotte27

    If you’d shown me the car up above without any commentary I wouldn’t even have recognised it as a BMW.
    But on the whole the bike industry is just the same, with very few exceptions. I mean just look at the bikes we’re being sold and the components… This should be much more cause for concern than a few millimetres of crank length.
    No wonder that most serious cyclists build their own bikes, or have them made by a builder, (and still have to compromise). And no wonder cycling doesn’t really catch on on any larger scale.

    June 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The car isn’t a BMW. It’s a Fisker, which takes the “large wheel” aesthetic almost to the limit (for now).

      June 11, 2013 at 1:11 pm
    • Greg

      Agreed, but we love to be passionate about our bikes and their components! It makes life more interesting, to say the least….
      That Fisker Karma is already out of production, due to some forces that were mostly beyond Henrik Fisker’s control. They made a few thousand of them though, and I’ve already seen two for sale on eBay for about half of their when-new cost. The Tesla Type S is really a more serious product, and has already been called ‘car of the year’ by Automobile Magazine, iirc. I’d buy one, but I would then have to make sure than my Karma didn’t run over my dogma….

      June 11, 2013 at 1:18 pm
  • Gert

    Some people in Europe say something poitically incorrect about the shift in BMW owners, and that explains the change. (No offens intended, delete this if it is considered offensive)
    But on the topic of Cranks. I want 180 mm on my next bike. I have a bike with 175 mm, one with 177,5 mm and the old bike I use to commute to the train station has one 175 mm and one 180 mm and that even for my short leg, and I do not note the difference. But as I am 6´5 I might as well have a long crankarm.
    When You first wrote about Your cranks, You wrote that the distance between the pedals (Can not remember the right term) were a more important factor. Have You more on that topic?
    By the way I was considering a stainlesssteel frame and stem for my next bike. Are You warning against stainless steel for frame and stem?

    June 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Distance between cranks: Traditionally called “tread,” more recently “Q factor,” many riders are sensitive to it. Many riders prefer it narrow, including most racers in the old days. As far as I am concerned, I can live with a tread below 150 mm, prefer below 140 mm, and 120 mm feels just great. I don’t think I can tell very small differences, but 10 mm in width makes a significant difference in how the bike feels as far as ease of spin. (In fact, I used to confound crank length with tread, see this post here, since my long cranks also were wider.)
      Regarding stainless steel frames, there are some that have an excellent reputation. On the other hand, I don’t really see the advantages over normal steel. It doesn’t rust, but even 30+ year-old bikes don’t rust to pieces, if you take a little care of them.
      Stainless steel isn’t a bad material per se, but when you take parts designed for high-strength steel and replicate them in weaker materials (stainless, titanium, aluminum), you are inviting trouble. Crank bolts as we know them were originally designed by René Herse. His first ones tended to break, so he made them larger, and that is the design we still use today (via Stronglight and Campagnolo, who followed his design). If you wanted to make them from stainless steel, you should make them larger, but that requires a bigger hole in the bottom bracket spindle, which weakens the spindle, so you’d need a bigger spindle, bigger BB shell and so on.

      June 11, 2013 at 2:09 pm
      • Erik

        I agree with all of your comments in regards to crankarm length, material, design, and manufacturing process. Your thoughts on crank bolts, however, seem a response to a problem that doesn’t exist. Don’t get me wrong…RH bolts are beautiful, and undoubtedly as strong (or stronger) than anything out there, but in a lifetime of cycling including 15 years working in busy shops, I honestly can’t remember seeing a broken stainless crank bolt. There simply isn’t that much force on them once an arm is pressed onto the spindle. Even silly aluminum bolts seldom fail, provided that the arm is first tightened on with a steel bolt, before then being replaced by the aluminum one. Not saying that you should stop making your RH bolts the way that you do, but I also don’t think that anyone should be concerned about using a stainless steel version.

        June 12, 2013 at 6:52 am
      • msrw

        FYI, I’ve been using for the past few decades a set of titanium crank bolts made by Teledyne in the early 70’s. I’ve torqued them down beyond spec countless times, never used steel bolts first, and the Ti bolts are as new. For this application, Ti seems to be comparable to steel.

        June 15, 2013 at 3:34 pm
  • Gert

    Thanks I will reconsider the frame and maybe have one in Reynolds 631 instead from a different builder, which is cheaper, but maybe it is the skill of the framebuilder, that is most important anyway.
    As for the cranks I think You should go to great lenghts for Your customers, so put me down for a 180 mm for early next year

    June 11, 2013 at 2:27 pm
  • cory

    Jan, I think it would be fair to make Rene Herse cranks in every length requested by your customers. Do up a pre order and have the forging dies among other high costs split evenly amongst the pre orders. Make everyone happy! The cranks in 171 aren’t enough. Neither is BQ or your fabulous books. Work harder and sacrifice more of your time please so they can have an extra 3%.
    Jan, you do a fantastic job and when I can afford a quality Rene Herse crankset, I would be glad to upgrade and support a forward thinking, hard working individual and company. In the mean time I’m going to cycle home from work, enjoy the great weather and be happy with my 170mm cranks.

    June 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm
  • RickH

    Metals and metallurgy.
    Some things I agree, some things I don’t because they are speculative comments. Steels, alloys, castings and forging all have their strengths and trade offs. “Grades” of steels and alloys also change their respective characteristics too. Incorrect choice for the job at hand will invoke failure or overkill. I also know what is involved in making forging dies and the cost to run that kind of production.
    I believe Jan has gone to great lengths to produce a highly reliable product that will serve you many miles and I will commend anyone that does that. To read about riders wanting this and that or would be better this way etc, etc, needs to look at why they want this and that and just maybe, they need to accept the product may not be for them. If the majority of the product suits your purpose go ahead and make personal changes, just like every cyclist I know.
    Quality will cost more in most cases but you will buy good tools once.

    June 11, 2013 at 4:17 pm
  • David Pearce

    Wow, all this debate and discussion over crank lengths and everything else! You must have hit a nerve, Jan. And also you must personally go nuts with all the pro and con decisions you have to make about this part or that part. My sympathies!
    And frankly, I think the title of this blog post is wrong. With all respect, I think it IS easy to be honest; Not perhaps with the little lies we tell ourselves about our personal lives, but at least with the decisions we make about the things we make.
    You have stated on the record you try to make the best quality and smartest parts you can. Thank you for that guarantee. I appreciate it, and I know others do too.
    I guess I have no stomach for argument. I have made an executive decision, I’ve decided to make a change to my randonneur: I’m building it WITHOUT cranks.

    June 12, 2013 at 7:12 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We sweat the details so you don’t have to. However, sometimes, we come to conclusions that go against the mainstream opinion, and then we have to explain why we do things the way we do…
      Maybe we’ll talk about puncture-proof tires next? 🙂

      June 12, 2013 at 7:30 am
  • Stevy

    “It’s Not Easy to Be Honest” maybe you should say that it is not as profitable….
    I’ve bought parts from you in the past and never been disappointed. Everything was very good quality, and you don’t gouge on shipping either. I also appreciate that you don’t sell items just to fill every category (I know that there are plenty of good brakes on the market for example).
    I did inquire about some rims a while ago, and you said you wouldn’t be carrying them again anytime soon. Is this a case of something not working well for customers, or no longer meeting your standards? I’m not trying to pry, just being curious.

    June 12, 2013 at 7:13 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The rims didn’t meet our standards. They didn’t seat tires the way they should, and so we don’t sell them. We only sell products we can stand behind 100%. For more details, see this post.

      June 12, 2013 at 7:31 am
      • Chris L

        Interesting to hear. I bought a pair of the 650b rims and laced them to some NOS first generation XTR hubs. I don’t recall having any issues getting my Hetres to seat. Building them up wasn’t as easy as building up a set of modern Mavic or Velocity rims. It took a long time to achieve lateral trueness AND still have even tension. It reminded of back in the day lacing up GEL 330 or 280 rims. Also the joint in the rims had a very pronounced lip that you could feel when braking and took quite a long time to wear smooth. Not the worse rims I’ve ever built up but also not the best. They have held up nicely and remained true despite the best efforts of Seattle’s potholes.

        June 12, 2013 at 11:48 am
  • Paul Ahart

    It’s been interesting reading of all the interest in longer/shorter crankarms. I’m an average-height guy 5’9″ and had 175mm cranks on several mountain bikes I’ve owned over the years. I discovered that hyper-flexing my right knee on the upstroke eventually caused severe pain and tenderness that lasted for many days. I eventually installed 170mm cranks on all my bikes and have never looked back. I think your decision on a 171mm length was a good one. Years ago Grant Peterson published research he’d done on the effect of longer/shorter cranks, like you, decided there really wasn’t much difference in effectiveness.
    On the issue of broken crankarms: I recently replaced a customer’s Shimano Ultegra cranks after his right crankarm developed a 1.5″ long crack starting at the pedal hole. It seems his pedals had been installed without washers and had been severely over-tightened, which stressed the alloy at that spot. Needless to say, I convinced him of the need for pedal washers, grease on the threads, and to tighten them modestly.

    June 12, 2013 at 7:58 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      If the pedals have been on there for a while, they may have tightened themselves… as that is how they are designed.
      That said, I know about overtightened pedals: When I bought my cyclocross bike (used), the pedals were so tight that even with all the tools of a machine shop, they wouldn’t come off. We finally decided to sacrifice the pedal and save the crank. We sawed off the pedal, machined off the rest of the spindle, and then the little stub in the crank hole unthreaded with ease. Amazing what overtightening pedals can do!

      June 12, 2013 at 8:04 am
      • Garth

        Can you explain the pedal-washer thing? thx

        June 12, 2013 at 11:26 pm
  • Vlad

    Please, please make 181mm cranks. I’ll order at least two.

    June 12, 2013 at 11:04 am
  • Nick Skaggs

    I have a 27″ inseam. I’ve ridden many cranks in many lengths, and I have enough riding experience to know what works for me and what doesn’t. I know I love a narrow Q-factor. I know I love the longevity, performance, and aesthetics of sqare-taper cranks. I know that 170mm cranks are too long, and the longest cranks I can ride painlessly.
    I would *LOVE* to see a 161mm Rene Herse crank made. I would purchase it immediately!
    Maybe I’m the only person who feels this way. There’s ‘market demand’ coming into play.
    If that picture of multiple Rene Herse cranks above is real, it tells me that at least one (1) Rene Herse crank was made in 165. Maybe it was just a prototype or testing model. I don’t care.
    Can I have it? Is there any way I could purchase it?
    That would be the best. Thing. Ever.
    -Nicholas Skaggs

    June 12, 2013 at 11:31 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Unfortunately, the different crank lengths are just the result of Photoshop. We never made any prototypes that weren’t forged…

      June 12, 2013 at 12:29 pm
  • wwcline

    Where can one read the full interview with that BMW engineer?

    June 12, 2013 at 6:35 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I quoted it from memory… so I looked it up, and it was reported in an opinion piece in evo 157 (so not a verbatim interview). Here it is:
      “This thought was brought home to me recently when I met up with one of the engineers who had worked on the dynamics for the new 6-series. I asked him where he stood on run-flat tyres. He just shrugged his shoulders and replied that they weren’t a real problem as the extra weight of a run-flat carcass was minimal next to the huge wheels BMW designers insist on. But what about the effect of those shallow sidewalls and the increase of unsprung weight on ride quality? He gave another shrug and pointed out that a run-flat might add a kilo or so, but over-designed wheels could weigh up to 3 to 4kg more, just for the sake of the looks. I could tell the ‘love’ had gone out of it for him.”

      June 12, 2013 at 8:05 pm
  • lk

    Like you, I cannot notice a discernible difference in the feel or efficiency of different length cranks. It is a small detail that many people sweat that I’ve never really understood.
    That being said, I got a knee injury recently and noticed that longer cranks irritated my injured knee more than the shorter ones; the slightly sharper angle imposed my the longer cranks was more painful for my injury. The 165’s were preferable to my 170’s and 175’s in terms of protecting my knees. In this way, I think that a variety of length offerings may be useful in catering to people with different joints, injuries, and needs. I believe this is something to consider. Although I do agree with you fully: the actual difference in performance between modern length offerings is trivial at best.

    June 12, 2013 at 7:33 pm
  • Jon Blum

    There are a lot of different business models out there. Companies like Compass and Rivendell chose to focus on the high end of the quality spectrum and appeal to a small but demanding clientele. While I very much admire what they have done, this model is not for everyone, and BMW is probably too big to focus on enthusiasts. It’s a shame, but their stockholders would probably prefer them to sell more cars than make enthusiasts happy. (Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but my point is there are tradeoffs a business has to make. Jan knows he is not going to sell any cranks at Wal-Mart, and that’s OK.)
    I have been lucky enough not to have ever broken a crank arm. I was intrigued by the comments about design flaws in older Campy and TA cranks. Several companies (V-O and IRD) have resurrected “Campy copies” with superficially similar designs. While they are handsome, I wonder if they will be prone to the same problems. Has anyone looked at these to see if they’ve retained the features that tended to lead to failures?

    June 12, 2013 at 10:32 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I haven’t looked at the replicas specifically, but the Campagnolo cranks had two specific failure modes. One was a huge stress riser at the transition from the spider to the arm. There was a sharp edge here that concentrated all stresses on a very thin edge, which then cracked and propagated. (The very first Campagnolo cranks from 1957 until about 1962 didn’t have that sharp edge, and neither did the last Nuovo/Super Record ones without flutes.) You can file out that sharp edge even after the cracks first appear, and they should be fine.
      The second problem is at the thinnest portion of the arm, just below the pedal eye. The latest cranks don’t have the deep flutes there, so that may have helped.
      Furthermore, the alloy Campagnolo used is very hard, but also a bit brittle. That may not have helped. (On the other hand, contemporary Campagnolo ads claim that their cranks were made from 2014 alloy, which is the same as TA’s, see below.)
      Classic TA cranks have no design issues, but the machining of the cranks to length weakened the grain structure for the “oddball” lengths (all but 170 mm).

      June 13, 2013 at 6:11 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It’s a shame, but their stockholders would probably prefer them to sell more cars than make enthusiasts happy.

      I alluded to that in my last sentence. I am glad to own a company where I don’t have to justify our growth and profits (or lack thereof) to anybody. I need to make a living, but maximizing returns isn’t my goal. Otherwise, our product line would look quite different!

      June 13, 2013 at 6:14 am
  • Jim

    Some of the respondents with shorter crank needs might consider the classic TA pedals with removable cages. The cages could be had in various heights to compensate for the leg length differences of individual riders. They could still use your Herse cranks but gain the effect of a shorter crank length.

    June 13, 2013 at 4:44 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The cage height would not change the diameter of the circle on which the pedal spindle rotates. So you’d get the effect of a shorter crank only with respect to saddle-to-pedal distance, but not as far as the rotation is concerned.

      June 13, 2013 at 6:13 am
  • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

    Sadly, the need to “please the customer” does not just apply to the car’s appearance, but also leads to inclusion of features that are unsafe. Study after study shows that “hands-free infotainment” technology creates significant risks, yet car makers keep putting more of it into their cars. The New York Times reports today about a new study showing the risks of allowing drivers to dictate e-mails or update Facebook pages while driving. This won’t sway car makers, as an official of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said: “It is a connected society, and people want to be connected in their car just as they are in their home or wherever they may be.”
    Translation: It may not be safe, but since customers want it, we’ll put it in our cars.

    June 13, 2013 at 7:03 am
    • Stephen

      [Sigh] The fact that insane behaviour is common does not make it less insane. I hadn’t even thought of anyone updating Facebook while operating a vehicle but I guess when people are surgically connected to their phones I shouldn’t be surprised.
      Perhaps the only real solution is to legislate against such devices and behaviour, and to be very serious about prosecuting offenders. I presume legislation is why Coca Cola no longer contains cocaine, which would no doubt increase sales if present now.

      June 13, 2013 at 8:28 am
  • David Feldman

    Back to cranksets–it is good to see a new, high quality, square-taper crankset on the market. I have a set in my shop waiting for a customer’s new frame to assemble them on and they are GORGEOUS. They also appear highly functional in design. A problem in the Northwest with external-bearing bottom brackets is that they are a water trap. I am a full time bike mechanic and see and replace numerous dry, crunchy bearings and bb sets. A high quality alternative to plastic-armed, water-sucking bb fashionable cranksets is a great thing to see.

    June 16, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Count me among those seriously considering having a bike built around a significantly longer crank. I’m 6’5″ and Zinn’s little calculator suggests 205mm cranks. I don’t expect everybody to make them, but I’m glad there are a couple folks who do.

    June 16, 2013 at 11:18 pm

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