Here are a few things you should know about Jan Ullrich, the first and only German to win the Tour de France, Olympic champion, perennial Lance Armstrong rival, and admitted drug cheat from an era when the use of performance-enhancing drugs was so rampant it’s become nearly impossible to discern who, if anyone, was actually being cheated.
For starters, it’s important to know that, these days, Ullrich is a happy man — very happy. At a recent weekend in Santa Rosa, California, for a Rapha Cycling Club summit, Ullrich seemingly smiled the entire time. Yes, he’s sponsored by Rapha, and yes, Rapha paid for him to attend and mingle with paying RCC members. Nevertheless, Ullrich’s smile, and relaxed demeanor, were as genuine as they were ubiquitous. Some things can be forced, or faked; others cannot. Though he was never fully comfortable with celebrity during his career, Jan Ullrich is, by nature, a very social creature.
For a man who moved away from his home in Germany 15 years ago due to excessive public scrutiny, and retired unceremoniously 10 years ago amid scandal, Ullrich is surprisingly unburdened by the events of the past. On first glance, his appearance is unchanged from his racing days. Unlike Armstrong, who has aged rapidly in the aftermath of a criminal investigation, televised doping confession, and federal lawsuit, Ullrich does not have a gray hair on his head; the freckled skin on his face is largely devoid of wrinkles. He weighs a bit more than he did 20 years ago — Ullrich says he’s 11 kilos, or 24 pounds, heavier than his leanest race days — but less than he did a few years ago, before he got back on the bike. His muscular legs are shaved, and very much look like the legs of a bike racer.
Here’s what else you should know about Ullrich, who turns 43, in December: His mastery of the English language is much better than he is willing to admit. Over the course of a weekend in California, which included shared meals, riding in a paceline, and two interviews (presented below, in their entirety), his ability to express himself in English rarely faltered. Ullrich grew up in Rostock, East Germany, a product of the East German sports schools; he was 16 when the Berlin Wall came down. Russian was his second language, and he only truly started to speak English after his retirement, in 2006. Before then, he’d only ridden for German teams, with German sponsors and German directors, and hadn’t had much opportunity to learn or speak other languages. (Note: In a few instances, Ullrich was assisted in this interview by his manager, Ole Ternes.)
In addition to the 1997 Tour de France and the 2000 Olympic gold medal in Sydney, Ullrich also won the 1999 Vuelta a España, two world time-trial titles (1999 and 2001) and the 1997 HEW Cyclassics UCI World Cup event, two weeks after winning the Tour, in front of a home crowd in Hamburg.
Wins came early for Ullrich — he won the Tour at age 23, and was an Olympic gold medalist at age 26 — but the latter years of his career were marked by knee injuries, a recurring runner-up role to Armstrong, and ultimately, doping allegations and an unplanned retirement, an inglorious final chapter in the career of a rider who had offered the German cycling public so much promise.
“Ullrich’s story was written the day he first wore the Yellow Jersey in 1997,” German writer Sebastian Moll wrote in 2006, in a piece titled “The tragedy of Jan Ullrich.” “He was the prodigy, the Wunderkind who would be invincible throughout his lifetime, the new Siegfried. That he turned out instead to be a highly talented but conflicted kid, struggling with his life and his identity and fucking up regularly was never forgiven him.”
Since retiring, Ullrich has led a quiet life, largely out of the public eye, and far from tragic. Whether he’s been forgiven is highly subjective.
Though he took four years completely off the bike, Ullrich now rides regularly. He says he rode 10,000km (6,200 miles) in 2015; about 20% of that, he says, was on a mountain bike. These days he rides for fun, and for fitness, but he doesn’t compete. “I’ve done enough race kilometres in my life,” he explained. “I don’t need to race anymore.”
That’s not entirely true — since 2011, Ullrich has competed with 4,000 other participants in the Ötztal Cycle Marathon, a monster day in the saddle through the Austrian Alps, which consists of 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) of elevation gain over 238km (148 miles). The winners finish in seven hours; others take 14 hours to finish. An invitation to do the 2011 Ötztal Cycle Marathon was what motivated Ullrich to get back on the bike, and back into shape.
And though he doesn’t race, Ullrich still pushes big gears; in California, his Storck Aernario was equipped with a 54-39 crankset, and an 11-25 cassette. For those keeping score, he runs Shimano’s Di2 Dura-Ace electronic groupset.
Ullrich’s family — wife Sara and sons Max, Benno, and Toni — currently live in Mallorca, Spain, a one-year trip abroad to expose the children to another language that may be extended indefinitely. His eldest child, daughter Sarah Maria, is 13 and lives with her mother in Switzerland, but visits with the family often. Their home in Mallorca, near Palma, is both luxurious and spacious, with a pool, guest house, and a wine cellar. Ullrich said since moving there, he’s had guests almost every week, primarily friends looking for a cycling getaway.
Back on the bike for five years now, Ullrich is sponsored by several cycling brands, including Storck bikes, Rapha, Northwave shoes, Lightweight wheels, Rotor cranks, Shimano components, and POC helmets. He travels frequently to private training camps and other events, and is at ease with his role as a celebrity guest. In the winters he serves as a host at ski trips organized by former world speed-skiing champion Franz Weber, who splits his time between Reno, Nevada, and his home in Austria. Ullrich says he is a decent skier — something Weber acknowledges — but acknowledges that his wife, Sara, is much better.
“She’s from Bavaria,” Ullrich smiled. “She was born in the snow. She started skiing before she was three years old. I didn’t start skiing until my cycling career was over. I’m okay, I like to go fast. My life has been in racing, so I’ll take some risks. But she’s much better; a beautiful skier, very elegant. She’ll always be better.”
Life hasn’t been all roses since officially announcing his retirement in February 2007. Ullrich suffered from psychological burnout — depression, basically — and did not touch the bike for four years.
In February 2012, Ullrich was banned for two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a largely symbolic punishment for his involvement in Operation Puerto, the blood doping ring run by Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, which saw Ullrich sent home on the eve of the 2006 Tour.
In June 2013, Ullrich finally admitted to using transfusions during his career, telling German magazine Focus he didn’t view it as cheating, per se. “Almost everyone at the time was taking performance-enhancing substances,” he said. “I didn’t take anything that was not taken by the others. It would only have been cheating for me if I had gotten an advantage which was not the case. I just wanted to ensure I had an equal opportunity.”
In May 2014, Ullrich collided into another car at high speed near his home at Lake Constance, Switzerland, later admitting that he had been under the influence of alcohol — a second drunk driving incident following a low-speed crash in 2002 near Freiburg, Germany. While there were no serious injuries in either incident, a Swiss prosecutor initially sought an 18-month suspended prison sentence, as Ullrich was allegedly going 140kph (87mph) in an 80kph (50mph) zone. At a hearing in June 2015, Ullrich said called it a “huge mistake I deeply regret, and for which I am ashamed.”
And while Ullrich admitted to doping in June 2013, that same month he had strong words about Armstrong, saying, “Normally I don’t wish bad things on people, including Armstrong. But I’ve always said that Lance wouldn’t get out of it. He made too many enemies. He always wanted to be the boss, and behaved ruthlessly with his subordinates.”
Though many things have been said about Ullrich, he’s never been described as ruthless. He first made a name for himself at the 1996 Tour de France, riding in support of Telekom teammate Bjarne Riis, the eventual winner. Ullrich won the final time trial that year, beating his hero, Miguel Indurain, finishing second overall, and leading Indurain to predict that Ullrich would win a Tour of his own — and soon. Those words meant a lot to Ullrich, whose first memories of the Tour de France, in 1989, included Indurain’s selfless riding for teammate Pedro Delgado. At that 1996 Tour, Ullrich emulated his hero, never once questioning his role in helping Riis win. The following year, Riis returned the favor; Riis did so again in 1998, but Ullrich faltered in the cold on the Col du Galibier and lost nine minutes, and the maillot jaune.
Ullrich’s sense of sportsmanship and fair play was again on display at the 2003 Tour de France, when Armstrong famously tangled with a spectator’s musette bag heading into the summit finish on Luz Ardiden, crashing to the ground with Iban Mayo. The German was just 15 seconds behind Armstrong, then a four-time Tour winner, but rather than attack and take time, he waited for the yellow jersey, and told others to do the same. Armstrong remounted, recovered, and then rode away from Ullrich, who ended up losing over 40 seconds on the stage.
“It’s only fair that we waited for Armstrong,” Ullrich said at the time. “I don’t think I lost any of my rhythm. It was nice to catch my breath. Lance was the strongest today, you have to give him credit.”
Earlier this summer, Ullrich was in the United States for several weeks, with German cycling tour group Away From it All. They rode in Utah and Colorado, including Pikes Peak, which climbs 2,412 metres (7,914 feet) in 40km (24 miles) to an elevation of 4,300m (14,110 feet) above sea level. While in Colorado, Ullrich reached out to Armstrong, who owns a home in Aspen, but they did not connect.
Asked if he’d be up for a ride with his former rival, Ullrich smiled. “Sure, why not?” Asked if he’d give it a little stick, maybe try to drop Armstrong for old times’ sake, he laughed. “No,” he said. “I’ve been retired 10 years. I like to ride my bike. I love this sport. But I do no more racing. I’ve done so many races in my life, with all the pressure. Now, I’m cycling for myself. When I want, I go fast. When I want, I stop for coffee. I race with my kids now.”
Ullrich was also asked the question perhaps most cycling fans would ask him, given the chance — should Armstrong still be considered a seven-time Tour champion? His answer to this question, and many more, follow below.
[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted over two days and several conversations. The chronology of questions has been modified. In some instances, answers with overlap or redundancy were compiled into one answer.]
CyclingTips: Describe your life today — what is it like?
Jan Ullrich: I retired 10 years ago, and built a family. I have four kids; one daughter, three sons, and a beautiful wife. We moved from Switzerland to Spain — to Mallorca, a beautiful island. The master plan was to live there for one year, but we are very happy there, so we may stay longer, two years or three years. We don’t know yet.
CyclingTips: You said this was, in part, to have your children exposed to another language. Can you expand on that?
Jan Ullrich: This is my big problem. I am from East Germany, and we had Russian in school, only. English, too, but our English teacher was a woman who was pregnant every year, so we had no English. For my kids, it’s easy at this age — I have a three-year-old boy, a five-year-old boy, a nine-year-old boy, and a 13-year-old daughter. At this age it’s very easy to learn different languages.
CyclingTips: How has the Ullrich family adjusted to life on a Spanish island?
Jan Ullrich: It’s very nice — very, very nice. Mallorca is a nice island for cycling, for lifestyle. There is a very good school, for our kids. I have a lot of friends who live there. For a lot of years in my career, we had training camps there, so I spent a lot of time training there, five to seven hours, and now I live there. The weather is very good, even in the winter. You can train all the year in Mallorca.
CyclingTips: I’m guessing you have a lot of house guests — cyclists who want to come to Mallorca to train?
Jan Ullrich: We have guests almost every day. There was one period where we had guests every day for 11 weeks. My friends take a holiday to Mallorca, sometimes twice a year. We can spend time together, ride together, and you’re sleeping in your own house. It’s perfect. It’s a nice house with a guest house and a big pool. I like having good friends around my family. Mallorca is perfect for this.
CyclingTips: How much do you train now?
Jan Ullrich: I’d like to train more, but I’m happy with it. Last year I rode 10,000 kilometres. I think this is good for my health. You can eat what you want, you can drink what you want. I love the sport. I don’t do any racing, I don’t have any pressure, but I love to ride my bike, with friends, with my family, or alone. It’s a beautiful sport, and I still enjoy it.
CyclingTips: I was very surprised, when I first saw you. You look the same as when you were racing. Maybe you’re a few kilos heavier, but it’s almost as if you haven’t aged at all in 10 years. How do you explain that?
Jan Ullrich: I think cycling is very healthy. And I enjoy my life. I don’t eat any special foods. But thank you for the compliment. I think it’s because I’m happy with my life. I feel very good.
CyclingTips: Your weight was always such a topic during your career; what do you weigh now?
Jan Ullrich: I weigh about 10 kilos more (22 pounds) than during my racing career. So now I weigh 81 kilos (178 pounds). When I won the Tour de France, I was 70 kilos (154 pounds).
CyclingTips: What cycling brands are you sponsored by?
Jan Ullrich: For the last three years I’ve been with a German company, Storck, a high-level bike, but I’ll change next year to Rose [a consumer-direct German bike brand]. Also Rapha clothing, Lightweight wheels, Northwave shoes, POC helmets. I have good sponsors.
CyclingTips: So you’re sponsored not to race, but just to ride your bike?
Jan Ullrich: Yes, just ride the bike. On Facebook, I have a big fan family, and for the sponsorships, this is enough. I do a minimum of 80-100 cycling events, all around the world, in Europe but also South Africa and the U.S. It’s good for me, and good for the sponsors.
CyclingTips: When was the last time you lived in Germany?
Jan Ullrich: I moved from Germany in 2002.
CyclingTips: It’s been a long time. I understand that move was due to all the public scrutiny that came with being Germany’s first and only Tour de France champion. Would you ever live there again?
Jan Ullrich: I don’t know. For now, we’re in Mallorca for a minimum of one year, maybe two or three years. What happens after three years, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go back to Germany, or another country. We make the best for the family. I moved 15 years ago because it was not easy for me in Germany. I had no privacy when I was an active racer. But now, it’s okay. People recognize me, maybe ask for an autograph, but that’s okay.
Video: Jan Ullrich in a 1999 Deutsche Telekom commercial
CyclingTips: The 2017 Tour de France will be starting in Dusseldorf. Will you be there?
Jan Ullrich: Yeah, absolutely. It will be 20 years after my win at the Tour de France. It starts in Germany, and I’m the first and only German to win the Tour. Twenty years after my win, with a start in Dusseldorf, it’s a big deal. Maybe I’ll go and we’ll organize an all-star race, one day before the Grand Depart, and invite riders like Miguel Indurain, or Greg LeMond, to do a one-hour race with me. I think it could be a good idea.
CyclingTips: There was a tumultuous period for German cycling following your retirement, with sponsors leaving and German television abandoning the Tour de France. That’s changed in the past few years. What’s your take on German cycling today?
Jan Ullrich: It’s very good. We have Tony Martin, the world time trial champion, as well as good sprinters with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, and John Degenkolb. Germany has two top-level teams, Giant-Alpecin and Bora-Argon 18. Cycling in Germany is very big.
CyclingTips: Much has been written about your generation, and what was going on behind the scenes. Do you feel like today’s generation has a different atmosphere — in terms of the pressure they face?
Jan Ullrich: Absolutely. Cycling has changed now. In my era, cycling was 90% in Europe. Now the riders start in Australia in January and finish in Dubai in end of October. It’s a long season. There are races in the U.S. — the Tour of California. There are races in Oman, all over the world. It’s a lot of traveling now for all the teams. It’s not easy, all the bikes, the mechanics, the buses, all the organisation. I think it’s the same pressure, but more traveling.
CyclingTips: In terms of pressure on riders, I was specifically wondering about doping, today versus 10 years ago. Do you think — from what you see, when you watch the races, and from what you hear from those still involved — that there has been a change with this generation?
Jan Ullrich: I watch the races, and I want to try to think that now it’s a clean sport. I don’t first think, when someone wins, that maybe they are doping. I want to try to believe.
CyclingTips: Which riders are you most impressed with in today’s peloton?
Jan Ullrich: I find Peter Sagan to be a beautiful rider and special person. Now he’s world champion for a second time. He’s made the races. I like Contador. I like Froome, he’s the best in a Grand Tour. The Colombians are very impressive. Cycling is very interesting now.
CyclingTips: If you were 25 today, in today’s peloton, where would you be finishing in the Tour de France against riders like Froome, Contador, and Quintana? Could you win the Tour against these riders?
Jan Ullrich: [laughs] Yeah, I think so. I hope so. But I live in the moment, and I think about the present.
CyclingTips: A reader sent in a question: He wanted to know about Stage 8 of the 2003 Tour de France, which finished on l’Alpe d’Huez. You lost 3:36 to Iban Mayo on that stage, and 1:24 to Armstrong, who ended up winning the Tour by just 1:01. What happened that day?
Jan Ullrich: I had a fever after the team time trial, which was the fourth stage. I ate something wrong, and after that I had a high fever, 40 degrees [104°F] for two days. I was happy they were flat days, but on Alpe d’Huez I had a little bit of fever. The power came back two days after Alpe d’Huez. I lost time, but I took time back in the time trial and other stages.
CyclingTips: In 2004, you were very lean at the Tour. Were you too skinny? Did you lose too much weight?
Jan Ullrich: I was too skinny in 1998, when Pantani won. On the stage with the Galibier, it was cold and raining, I was only 67 kilos [147 pounds], and normally I am powerful at 70 kilos [154 pounds]. I became hungry and lost nine minutes on the stage. In 2004, I wasn’t so skinny. Every year I was 70, 71 kilos. But in 1998 I was three kilos to low. And then one day I had a problem with the hunger.
CyclingTips: What was the best condition you ever had?
Jan Ullrich: In 1997, the year I won the Tour. All the year I was not sick in the spring. I could train every day. I started the season well, was good in every race, always in the top 20. This was my strongest year.
CyclingTips: Some have said you don’t like to talk about your career, but that hasn’t been my impression. Is that true that you don’t like to talk about your racing days?
Jan Ullrich: This comes from the German press. In Germany, when you win the Tour de France, a thousand people want to ask you something. I was a sportsman, and I had to take my rest, and my training, and every day someone wanted an interview, to do big show, to take photos. And at this time, I said enough is enough. I think that was for the best.
CyclingTips: In your eyes, is Lance Armstrong a seven-time Tour de France champion?
Jan Ullrich: This is a hard question. It’s not good, that in all those years, you have no winner. It’s not good for history, it’s not good for the Tour de France. I have heard all the stories about Lance. It’s a hard question. I don’t know the answer. I’m not the judge. But for the history of the Tour de France, it’s not good that there is no winner.
CyclingTips: What’s your relationship like, today, with Armstrong? Do you have a relationship? Do you talk?
Jan Ullrich: Yeah. When I come to the U.S., I send him a note. Six weeks ago, I was in Colorado, but I didn’t see him. He has a house in Aspen, and I started with a European group there. Every year, I come to the U.S. for two weeks, with European cyclists, as part of a German group called Away From It All. We were in Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. I called him, but he was back in Texas with all the kids, because school was starting, so he had no time to come to Colorado.
CyclingTips: What are your thoughts about his comeback in 2009 and 2010?
Jan Ullrich: I think that, when you stop your career, you have a long time to think it over before you make the decision. I think you should stick with the decision and not second-guess it. You reflect a long time before, and it’s a difficult decision. You should respect that.
CyclingTips: You never considered coming back?
Jan Ullrich: No. I remember, after Miguel Indurain retired, the ONCE team offered him 12 million euros to race with them for three years, and he said, ‘No. I thought a lot about retiring, and when I stop, I stop.’ I respected that.
CyclingTips: Why do you think athletes come back after retiring?
Jan Ullrich: I don’t know. Maybe it’s not too easy, the life after the career. When you stop your career… I needed one year to make this decision. It was 100% for me, I spoke with my wife, with my friends. I never considered a comeback. I said, ‘stop,’ and it was full stop. And then life after the career starts. And this was not too easy, in the first years after the career. But it’s a new life.
CyclingTips: If you and Armstrong were to meet up, in Colorado, would you go for a ride?
Jan Ullrich: Sure, why not?
CyclingTips: And if you did, would you give it a little stick, push the pace for old times’ sake?
Jan Ullrich: [laughs] No, no. I hear he is in good shape. He’s putting on mountain bike races, and all. I’ve been retired 10 years. I like to ride my bike. I love this sport. But I do no more racing. I’ve done so many races in my life, with all the pressure. Now, I’m cycling for myself. When I want, I go fast. When I want, I stop for coffee. I race with my kids now.
CyclingTips: Who was your hero when you were a young cyclist?
Jan Ullrich: When I was a junior, and I looked to the Tour de France. The first year I watched, Greg LeMond won [in 1989], and Miguel Indurain worked for Pedro Delgado, who finished third. Indurain worked every day for Delgado. He was very strong, and someone interviewed Indurain after a stage, where he worked for Delgado until 1km before the summit finish, he swung off, put it in an easy gear and went easy to the finish. And he was asked ‘why didn’t you go full gas to the finish line? Maybe you could finish fourth or fifth in the Tour de France.’ And Indurain answered ‘I did my job. I need my power for tomorrow, to help my boss, Delgado.’ For me it showed he was a classy person. He worked 100% for Delgado, and [in 1991] Delgado gave it back, he worked for Indurain, and Indurain won the Tour de France. This was the first impression I had of Indurain. He was always friendly, always gave interviews, and for me, he was the biggest rider in the world.
CyclingTips: Did you also admire Indurain because you shared similar physical characteristics? As GC contenders you were both bigger riders, very powerful, with a strong time trial.
Jan Ullrich: Yes. For me, one of the biggest days in my career was in 1996, the last day of the Tour de France. It was a 40km time trial [from Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion]. I won the stage, and Indurain was second. I beat my hero in the time trial. For me, it was unbelievable.
CyclingTips: Which riders from your career do you stay in contact with?
Jan Ullrich: A lot of riders. Andreas Kloden. Tony Martin. Udo Bolts. Bjarne Riis. Giuseppe Guerini, from Italy. Giovanni Lombardi. Rolf Aldag. A lot of great people.
CyclingTips: Do you think Bjarne Riis will return to cycling, to run a WorldTour team?
Jan Ullrich: Maybe, yeah. If he is motivated. He is a very good at team building. He is a good motivator.
CyclingTips: Have you ever considered being a team director?
Jan Ullrich: No. It’s too much time in a team car, too much time away from home. It’s 300 days a year on the road. I prefer to ride my bike than to watch others race their bikes. I prefer to wake up in my own bed.
CyclingTips: When you think back to your career, what are the best memories? What are you the most proud of?
Jan Ullrich: The best memories are the Tour de France; it’s a Grand Tour. But for me, the big one-day races [are also good memories]. You start in the morning, and you hope that you can win, but you never know. The Olympic road race in Sydney, but also my first world road championships, as an amateur in Oslo [in 1993]. I had big respect for all the riders. I was very young, and at the end of the day, I was the world champion. This was a very big emotion. One-day races are special, but for me, the hardest race in the world is the Tour de France. To win was very nice, especially on the Champs-Élysées. Even with a nine-minute lead, you think, ‘I hope there are no more crashes, or punctures.’ I was still nervous, all the way up to the finish line. And then you finish, you’ve won the Tour de France, and your family is there. After three weeks of racing, this is a big emotion.
CyclingTips: Simon Mottram introduced you at dinner, and spoke about the sportsmanship and humility you displayed during your career, and why that has left you with an enduring legacy in the sport, even after the doping revelations. How do you react to hearing yourself be described like that?
Jan Ullrich: I tell myself, I’m an athlete, not an actor. I’m a normal person. I try every day, no matter how much success I’ve had, I always wanted to remain true to myself. I never wanted to act any other way. With me, what you see is what you get. I think I have a big respect for everybody. Maybe a fan is not as fast as me on the bike, but maybe he is building a company, or doing something else that is good. I have a big respect for everyone.
CyclingTips: During much of your career, Armstrong was the Tour champion, and was an international star. But 10 years later, it seems as though history may be kinder to you — primarily due to the way you treated people during your career.
Jan Ullrich: I have a normal life. I have a family. My kids go to a normal school. I don’t have a bodyguard for my kids. I want a normal life, with my family. I want to enjoy my life. When I have a chance to make people happy, I try to do it.
CyclingTips: With everything you’ve been through, with your career, with your celebrity, with doping — what were the biggest lessons you learned? What would you change?
Jan Ullrich: When you are a pro cyclist, you are in the system. You are part of a team, the whole time. It’s like a Formula 1 team, and you are the star. Everyone builds the team around you. I was a sportsman, I did everything as I was told. It was my job. The lessons I’ve learned are about life outside of the system — life when you’re no longer a rock star. Today, I live a rich, full life. I’m 43 now and I’ve had a life that someone would need 200 years to live. I’ve seen so much in the world, I’ve done so many big races, I fought with so much pressure. I’ve met countless people in countries around the world. And now, I’m happy being with my family. I have a beautiful wife, beautiful kids, and beautiful friends. For me, it’s a good life. There were mistakes, yes. And you take good things, and bad things, from this. Then you try to make it better. Today, I live in the present, and in the future.
CyclingTips: What should be your legacy? How do you want to be remembered as a sportsman?
Jan Ullrich: What’s important is to be remembered as always being fair. Sportsmanship and fairness comes first.
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