Romancing the Ride…

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Since beginning this Backroads Tour, I’ve been writing this blog to record some of the daily discoveries on the journey. With this final post, I hope to reflect on a few of the bigger thoughts and impressions with which I return home.

Alaska is a very large place. I remember thinking that the last time I was here. But having ridden 350 miles of it in the saddle of a bike, the thing that now strikes me is less about the bigness of it, and more about the scale of this State. The mountains, the glaciers, the rivers, the waterfalls, the seas, the animals, fish and birds are all on a grander scale than we have in the lower 49 States. Alaska covers more than 663,000 sq miles. Pennsylvania covers 46,000, 14 times smaller. The climbs were long and arduous; the descents long and frightening at times. I just felt smaller, less significant, more vulnerable. I seemed to respect my smallness a lot more there than at home.

The Alaskan environment presents extremes on a daily basis. The rain was harsh, cold and steady. The dreary days are really, really dreary. The sun likes to hide in Alaska–everyone knows it goes into hibernation for several months in the winter. And even in the summer it plays hide-and-seek with the mountains and clouds, never out for more than a few hopeful moments. But when it shines, it makes everything superbly beautiful. The shadows against the mountains, its crevasses and the way it lights up the river valleys and waterfalls is breathtaking. The high probability od experiencing these extremes makes every day an adventure in Alaska. More so than anywhere else I’ve traveled thus far. I’m sure there are other places like this on earth, but Alaska is in the top 5 in the category of dealing with extremes. The upshot is I never went on a ride without over-preparing, ready for just about anything, and sometimes that wasn’t even enough to keep safe from the rapidly changing elements.

Not surprisingly, the residents of Alaska are also prone to extremes. They all seem to drive pick-up trucks. They drive incredibly fast. They bear the weight of some of the most dangerous, life-threatening jobs in the world. And their play time is also hard and even life threatening. One night we listened to the story of a female “musher” who completed her first Iditirod a few years ago. Unbelievable what she went through, just to finish. What I loved was that the majority of the people we met were honest, hard working, unpretentious and forthright. One day, Mary ran out of water while riding. The signal for the SAG van to,stop was to put your left arm out. When Mary put her arm out a passing car stopped and offered her bottled water. A complete stranger. These are the kinds of people you would want at your side if you were in trouble or needed a hand. I hope to,be more like that now that I’m home.

Mother Nature can be pretty cranky in Alaska. There was an earthquake our last night in the hotel. Didn’t last long, but I’m told they have them nearly every day. The mosquitos are absurdly abundant and everywhere. They bite like hell and the itch lasts for days. Snow is always present, always moving in the form of icy glaciers or rapidly moving snow melt. The bears show up at any time, any place. It is very hard to control your personal environment in Alaska. I felt vulnerable to some aspect of the environment every day I was there. And frankly, all the preparations in the world may not make a difference in some situations. But, I learned to pay attention and be keenly aware of my environment every minute–taking nothing for granted.

I’m a decent bicyclist in the flats and on rolling hills, but on the steeper ascents, I’m slow. Some of that is age; some is training, or lack thereof, and some of it is acceptance of my limitations. I honestly appreciate how much some of my riding buddies are willing to suffer to climb steep hills. And I used to try to emulate them. The fact is, I love riding, and I’m determined to climb the steeps even if it kills me. But my ego can now handle having to stop to take a breather half way up, or every 200 yards if needed, to tackle the big ones. My intense competitiveness is beginning to give way to a little maturity, enjoying my challenges a lot more, regretting outcomes a lot less.

Alaskans drive fast, very fast. All the time. Nearly every pick-up truck in the world begins its life in Alaska. They all have at least one. Every pick-up truck comes with a trailer pulling ATVs, or I’m guessing snowmobiles in winter. And they drive fast. In 350 miles of cycling, I saw exactly one speed limit sign. Alaska is a rugged and untamed land, still a frontier in many ways. We are so lucky other people like to live there. It would be hard.

By Thursday, many parts of my body were seriously hurting. I felt my quads, glutes, hamstrings and sitz bones as if they were sitting on the surface of my skin. Somehow though I felt alive, really alive. The fact is many people spend an entire lifetime without testing the limits of their bodies. They’ve never felt the pain that comes from the rawness of stretching personal limits until it hurts and stings. It’s crazy, but all that testing of boundaries and the accompanying pain produces an opportunity to discover the kind of character you are capable of. It also makes life richer. Not everyone likes riding, but every one should have something that stretches their bodily limits. It reminds them what it is to be alive. This past week, I was truly alive and well, even though a few body parts didn’t agree.

The only true failure in life is not trying. Taking risk is a necessary ingredient to feeling our life has had meaning, because without risk there is very little reward or personal growth. Those that take risk and fail are forced to learn how to manage disappointment in a healthy and growing manner. Last year I didn’t fail to conquer the Tour of Colorado, I just didn’t try because I didn’t know how to handle the possibility that I might fail. My trip to Alaska was in many respects a redemption of that failure to try last year.

Well, that’s it for this adventure. I’ve attached a few more pics to wrap up the story. Hope out enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

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Gird to Bird

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Hi All,

We had our final ride on the tour this morning. It was a short 34 miler from the Hotel in Girdwood to Bird Point and then onto the end of the bike path in Chugach National Park. After a day off, many of us were looking forward to this final ride. My legs and backside were in much better shape today and I was ready to jump back in the saddle.

Because we were riding bike paths today, I plugged in my earbuds. I listened to the Stones, Heart, Lynard Skynard, etc. I was intending to cruise this one final ride–stretch it out–because it’s unlikely I’ll return to Alaska again.

The ride parallels a shallow water inlet with high mountains on both sides. They are covered in lush greenery, topped with large and small patches of snow. The fluffy opaque clouds surround and drape the tops with a mist type effect, giving the grand view an almost erie feeling. The photos tell the story pretty well.

On the way out, the wind was blowing at our backs, and while I noticed it, I had not realized how strong it was until we turned around at mile 17 to head back. OMG was it blowing!! Apparently some of the others did notice how much it was blowing and headed back after mile 10. The remaining 3 of us (me, Tim and Andy) went the distance, choosing to fight the wind back.

We estimated it was blowing at least 25 to 30 MPH because when we had the wind to our back, we were maintaining about 25 MPH and didn’t feel the wind since we were traveling at the same speed.
On the way back, we felt the speed. At one point I was going downhill in my lowest gear and was still pedaling hard to keep momentum at 6 MPH. I loved it.

Just as an aside, the Backroads guides are always thinking about us, and with about 7 miles to go, one of them was sitting alongside the path waiting. By this time it was just Tim and me, in full working perspiration. He thought we might be beat up by the wind, and came out to inquire about needing a lift back. We laughed, shook hands, and told them we were loving the fun of the ride. Thanks anyway.

Glad we did, because about 4 miles later, a big black bear crossed our path about 100 yards in front of us. He saw us and stopped. We slowed down. He briefly started down the path towards us and then darted into the woods. Interestingly, the guides told us on day one that bears are stimulated to go after bikers because movement activates their tendency to chase their prey. We loved the sighting, but didn’t want to shake hands, so Tim wisely suggested we leave the path and ride on the other side of the road. Good idea!!

Tim and I have been roommates and mutual supporters all week. It’s truly been a pleasure to share all this with him, and it was nicely symbolic to ride this final few miles to finish the day with him.

We get back to the waiting Backroads Vans, and I did a final loop around the parking lot as a reminder of the excitement this week had brought, and as a final lap to soften the sadness of a very special experience coming to an end.

We gathered our gear, ran up to shower and pack. At noon we met for our final lunch as a group. Got some final pics, thanked the guides and bought some jerseys as mementos of the trip. By this time, all 11 of us are pretty close because we have created a common bond through a weeks worth of once-in-a-lifetime shared experiences that will never be duplicated again in exactly the same way.

I find it interesting to note that people seem to form the tightest bond when they have faced great personal challenges with others. On this trip, virtually everyone faced a personal challenge for the first time. Many rode their first centuries and/or accumulated more miles in four days than ever before. Some conquered the steeped climbs of their lives. Others were encouraged to test their personal limits, and found they could do much more than they ever thought. Somehow the people sharing those experiences and bearing witness to great personal achievements form a bond that perpetuates our memories of these moments, even if they never meet again. This group of 11 and our 3 guides created many of these memorable moments, and some day grandchildren will hear about the summer of 2012 in Alaska when…

Tim and I am now back in Anchorage having been dropped off at Captain Cooks to kill the afternoon before our long air trip home. It’s a dark and dreary day and we can hear the Air Force Thunderbirds putting on their spectacular show for the Alaskans at the annual Airshow. Instead of going out to watch, we choose to just quietly sit exchanging photos via our IPhones. Already the reminiscing of the past week has begun.

We are now heading out to find a good brewhouse to toast a great week in Alaaka.

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Valdez to Alyeska

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Hi Guys (and Ladies),

My second post for the day is about our trek from Valdez to Whittier to Alyeska Ski Resort. Hope you enjoyed the first post, “An Affair to Remember”. I got a lot of positive feedback on it from those of us riding the Roubais this week.

Today is a non- riding day, and most everyone welcomes the respite to let sore muscles heal and tired bodies recover. Specifically, my quads, hammy’s and glutes are worn to the bone. But we are…

…Up at 4:30 am today and it was already beginning to show light in the horizon. Breakfast at 5am. Walk to the Valdez to Whittier Ferry. On board at 6. Shove off at 6:15. It’s foggy and can’t see a thing for the first hour, but eventually the spectacular views open to us. We are surrounded by snow capped mountains in Prince William Sound, scattered with icebergs! Nothing too big, but lots of them. Incredible sight! And when we take our eyes to the mountains, we see several glaciers, the source of the icebergs. It’s truly hard to describe the scene, so I’ve attached some photos.

We then saw a Humpback Whale making lazy progress up the Sound. A sight I’m told is frequent. We saw Sea Lions sleeping on a buoy, another common occurrence.

I chatted up some of the people I had not yet had a chance to really know. I worked on my blog. Then took a well earned nap in a very comfortable reclining captain chair provided for passengers. This is a very upscale ferry and I’m sure some of my tax money is supporting it. I’m OK with that.

We had lunch on board and docked in Whittier at around noon.

Whittier is a town of 230 people and most live in the building in the photo attached. No kidding. This is a remote place originally built as a military outpost in WWII to protect the Aleutians from attack. It’s not more than a dock for tourists coming across the Sound now. But, we passed through a one lane tunnel about 2-1/2 mile long that using current technology would be a challenge, never mind what they had back in those days.

We drive into Alyeska Ski Resort, the oly one in all of Alaska. Tim and I took the tram to the top and saw a Bald Eagle fly right over the tram. On the way down, we saw a huge Moose grazing in the grass. Didn’t get pictures of any of them, but I have witnesses for each sighting.

Yesterday, Mary and I saw a bear on the bike ride, so I completed the sighting of the big 3 of Alaska today!! Whoopie!!

The resort is luxurious. Went to the hot tub to loosen up the muscles for tomorrows ride.

The highlight of today was getting a chance to better know our 3 guides while not riding today. Mason, Gabe and Dave have been fantastic guides, coaches, playmates, cooks, doctors, wrenches and cheerleaders. The amazing thing is they team up so well to always know when to be where you need them, at the time you need them, with the right skills working in your favor. In their own right they are intersting people, with a wealth of knowledge about Alaska, and the enthusiasm and bottomless energy to deliver a great experience for each and every one of us. It’s been truly a pleasure to know them and be alongside them for this experience. They say it’s the people that make a difference, and these three guys made a huge difference for all of us on this trip. I will do another Backroads Tour, on the strength of the experience these guys provided alone.

Anyway, time for dinner. Check tomorrow for another chapter.

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An Affair To Remember

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This past Monday I was introduced to a beautiful and spritely lady. I only barely knew her, but immediately was attracted. After only a day of getting to know each other, we became best of friends. By the second day we were having an affair that began to create memories for a lifetime. On the afternoon of the fourth day, I was beginning to feel guilty about my increasing desire to take her home. And today, I’m not with her, feeling an unexpected emptiness.

By now I have your attention, and certainly Kathy is glued to the computer screen. Fortunately, I’m not prone to the thrills of human affairs–I only have them with the bikes I ride.

Of course, I’m referring to the Specialized S-Works Roubais bicycle I’ve been riding all week. The bike was an optional upgrade for the Backroads Tour we were taking in Alaska. They promised a special experience and indeed it was.

You’ve seen pictures of it in some of my earlier posts, but I’ve included a few more portraits of her in this one. Isn’t she gorgeous?

She’s has a lightweight and sleek monocoque carbon body (frame), with a full Shimano carbon Durace cockpit (brakes and drive train). She has compact gearing to keep her in smooth and steady stride. While her legs are of steel for strong support, she has accessorized them with carbon spoking for ease of spinning and aerodynamic effectiveness. She purchased a special pair of shoes (tires) that made sure her ride was secure on all kinds of surfaces: dry, wet or rough.

She invited me to attach the pedals I brought from home, clip in, and get in the saddle, letting me know it would be special. Her arms (dropbars) are perfectly shaped: a thin, flat profile of carbon to make our bond soft and pleasurable.

And when we’re finally engaged in the saddle and moving under my first pedal strokes, she lets me know she is built for speed and thrilling performance, but willing and able to provide comfort and security for the long, adventurous days she has planned for us. She is as excited to get started as I am.

Beautifully draped in a gown of reds, whites and black, her makeup is impeccably applied. On her arms and hands she is wearing black with white speckled gloves (bar tape), attractive and comfortable to hold. She is beautiful to behold, but ready for adventure. I’ve been proud to be seen with her, honored she chose me to share this week, and privileged to be bonded as we explored Her Alaska.

We have had a wondrous affair. I’ve unconditionally loved our journey, gliding through every pedal stroke. I’ve looked forward to our morning coffee, preparations and planning for that days adventure. She was always waiting and ready, never shy about the rain, cold or rough terrain we might face. When we got to a steep incline, she gave her all, lending her lightweight and confident attitude to the task. Whenever I got a little nervous on a long, steep and fast downhill, or when we ran into unexpected rough road surfaces, she reached up and touched me, letting me know everything was OK.

We’ve experienced some beautiful sights and sounds along the way, and enjoyed all that this vast Alaska has to offer. We stopped to take water and food, and to capture pictures to brighten our memories. We rode with others just like her, but none were as artful or beautiful as my Alaskan Princess. Other times, we rode in solitude, deep in the appreciation of how special it was to just be alone, but together. Alaska would not have been the same experience without her. My Princess has made it unique and special: fun, exciting and comforting, all at once.

I invited her to come home with me. No, that is not possible. She reminds me it can only be a summer affair, and as lovely as it has been, it was only ever meant to be for just this week. She tells me how special it has been–that I’ve handled her well, with love, care and respect. But next week she tells me, will be another to share her journey. I just hope he appreciates her as much as I have.

Tomorrow will be our final date, and it will be too short. I will cherish those last few adventurous miles. At the end, I’ll say goodbye to a dear friend that helped create a lifetime of memories along nearly 350 miles of Alaskan wilderness. I will thank her for the journey, and tell her it was an experience of a lifetime.

On Monday, I’ll be back in the saddle of my dearest friend of all–RedRage, my Cannondale Synapse Carbon 3. I’ll confess my affair and she will be curious. She will ask about my adventures in Alaska, and I will tell them. She’ll remind me there is always something romantic about witnessing the world through the eyes of a bicycle, and that she understands how I might get distracted by another along the way.

When I’m done, she will gently remind me of the many years and thousands of miles we have ventured together. She’ll remind me she was my first love, that our memories have no boundaries, that she’ll always be there for me. I will reinstall the pedals that have connected us for all this time. We will re-settle into our comfortable relationship that will soon dim the sparkle I had for Alaskan Princess. She knows I sometimes stray, but always come home to her.

By the time we have completed a few miles on our morning ride, she will have forgiven me for having An Affair to Remember.

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Creativity from the Middle

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Hi All,

Today I could have ridden 35, 68, 87, or 107 miles. I really wanted to do the 107 mile century, but after taxing my body heavily yesterday and my backside and legs were revolting. I decided enough is enough–after all, if you tax yourself too much there’s nothing left to live on the rest of the week. On the other hand, our terrific Backroads Guides told us today was by far The Best scenic day of the week. So I had to figure out a way to keep the best parts of the long ride in, but cut some of the unnecessary fat out of the ride.

I tried conservative thinking and discovered my ideas were just too rigid to work. I tried the liberal approach, and all those ideas left me exhausted and overly taxed by the middle of the ride. So I went to the old dependable middle of the road, and found an immediate and workable solution.

I’d ride out from the hotel in the morning and get 55 miles in before lunch. That would give me a great scenic experience of the Copper River Valley. After lunch, I’d ask one of the guides to shuttle me to the Worthington Glacier that would have otherwise required me to expend serious energy on a 20 mile climb. This effectively cut out the excess fat from the ride that was more of the same I’d already seen in the Valley, and Eliminated a long climb. Then I would ride the last 30 miles into Valdez, catching numerous glaciers and waterfalls and glacial rivers along the way, and getting to see Valdez on the way to the hotel. It worked perfectly.

It’s too bad more people don’t use moderate approaches to solve issues like this. We’d get more workable solutions. Yes, there is a political message somewhere in the previous three paragraphs.

I ended up riding 85 miles today. Over the past 4 days thats a total of 293 miles in four days. That’s a personal best and the riding has been fairy challenging. I love it though. My backside hurts like you know what, but tomorrow is a non-riding day so it’ll get a chance to heal.

The weather was sunny, perfect temperatures all day and absolutely grand. There was a wind in our face all day; minor at first but picking up to 10 or 15 MPH at the end. The scenery was spectacular, and the riding was epic. At one point, I rode down a steep hill for nearly 9 miles, and never turned a pedal. Just held onto the brakes and tried to keep upright into the wind. There were also long stretches of flat runs that made the ride so unique. We have nothing like this in Pittsburgh, nothing.

The Mosquitos are like dive bombers with stingers on the nose cone. And they love Italian blood. I’m still itching a handful of bites.

The food tonight was ordinary, but we ate like voracious vultures. Today I burned over 5000 calories and I could have eaten anything in sight tonight. And I pretty Much did. I’m definitely losing weight on this ride. My jeans are loose already.

Mary Rago and I saw a bear today. Ran across the road about a 1/4 mile down the road. Big guy for sure. We stopped at a section of the Alaskan Pipeline. I’m impressed every time I see this pipeline. To,think of the technology that went into this pipeline back in the 70s is amazing. I saw over 10 glaciers, many of which do not have names. Waterfalls were everywhere. I began to take photos of all of them but stopped because I’d still be out there, Valdez is a cool little fishing village and of course the terminus for the pipeline.

Guys, I’m bushed tonight, so I’m going to attach some pics and hit the sack. We need to be at breakfast ready to go by 5 am. UGH!

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Liberal Attitude Leads to Epic Result

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Hi All,

After spending the night about 80 miles from Sarah’s house, i awoke a bit more balanced in perspective. To wit, we had 4 ride options today: 36, 48, 62 and 88 mile rides. Unconservatively, I decided to do the 88 miler today.

Here’s my reasoning. Yes some of anatomy is hurting, namely my butt, my legs and my shoulders, in that order. But in front of me was an opportunity to experience a great ride across Alaska that would benefit my mind, my spirits and my friendships with the other riders. Plus it would add the benefit of making me a stronger rider in the future as I extended my boundaries of my limits. So I decided to tax my body a little bit more so other parts of my life would be better. Obviously, this is much more liberal thinking than I used the day before, which focused on a ‘no taxing, no gain’ philosophy. Today there was some pain but a lot of gain–in fact it was epic! (I’m sure some of you can find a political message in there somewhere.)

The ride today was amazingly sightful (I’m running put of adjectives for this place and ride.) We saw the Drunken Forest, a huge plateau where the trees are almost black and some leaning over. This is because it is established in a former glacier bed, and the earth is soft and mushy and still ‘setting up’ after the ice melted– like 300 years ago.

Then there was another 2 glaciers in the far distance. Nelchina and Tazlina. Did you know there are a 100,000 active glaciers in Alaska, some unnamed? This one had a name but I forgot it. Sorry.

We had lunch at a cute little, and remote, Mendeltna Roadhouse, where Mabel served incredible Salmon Dip and Stuffed Dates along with fresh Halibut simply prepared and served with a fresh green Salad form her garden out back. This is one of the original roadhouses in Alaska, back when autos could only travel about 30 or 40 miles before they needed to fuel up. I have a selection of pictures for you to see, and one video. Hope the video works.

After lunch, we began the last legs of our 88 miler. From noon until about 4pm we covered nearly 50 miles in just about 4 hours. The group of riders solved many world problems as we distracted ourselves from the long ride. We talked about politics, religion, healthcare reform, taxes and other things I was too tired to think about.

The ride was epic though. First 20 miles were pretty much an uphill slog. Then the rest of it was long straightaways and rolling hills. There were occassional inclines that were long and steep, just to,remind us we were riding our bikes across rugged country side. The last 600 feet were straight uphill, just to make sure we remebered the ride.

Anyway, got to got to dinner. I’ll blog again tomorrow.

Oh! I forgot. We made our way from Sheeps Mountain to the Copper River Valley today. Yes the same Copper River that some of the best Salmon comes from. The picture with the big white mountain is the view from our cocktail hour chairs.

And the Mosquitos are NASTY!!

The ride was epic.

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A More Conservative Lou

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Hi All,

After spending the night a few blocks from Sarah Palin’s home in Wasilla, I woke up this morning feeling a bit more conservative. It must be the the water, or maybe it was Sarah’s 6 passenger pontoon plane sitting at the end of her dock on the lake that changed my thinking. (So much for her connection to the Common Folk-I think it’s pretty common for us folks to have a pontoon plane, don’t you think?)

Anyway, I decided to only do the 60 mile ride today instead of the 80 miler. For those that know me–that’s conservative for me! Because I never want to miss one sight on a trip like this. While my overnight recovery was good, I want to do the next 2 day long rides of about 90 miles each, and us more experienced guys know how to pace ourselves.

The weather was still threatening, but we hoped for a change. It’s still cold but not raining. The day improved from the getgo and got sunny around 3 pm. No rain. Yeah! It’s still cold. There is snow just on the mountain tops and riding is cold. See the picture. I did finally take the sleeves off my windbreaker though.

The first 40 miles were absolutely gorgeous farmland in a valley filled with thriving farms and homesteads. They are in the middle of very rugged nowhere, but the views of the mountains they enjoy everyday are breathtaking. We had lunch in a terrific little campground to stock up on the energy we’d need to spend the next 14 miles climbing up a mountain 2,500 ft high. While yesterday was more foot gain in terms of climbs, today it was just long, steady, slogging 5 to 10% climbs. I’ve attached a picture of the summit. It was awesome-both the climb and the views along the way.

Burned about 4800 calories today and 4200 yesterday. I’m eating anything in sight now and still losing weight.

One of todays top views was of Matanuska Glacier. Our ride took us within a 1/2 mile of the face. We followed the glacier flow basin all day. It was cool to see where the flows were coming from. Incredible sight. See the picture. It’s 27 miles long and begins in Palmer where we started yesterday, and terminates in Sheeps Mountain, where we are spending the night tonight. Not many people see that sight from the vantage of a bike seat. This picture alone was worth the trip!

Then there was an unbelievable descent 6 miles long! My top speed was 46 MPH. You cannot imagine the thrill of doing that kind of speed on a bike until you’ve done it. It’s like a roller coaster without the seat restraining bar.

Finally, we are staying at Sheeps Mountain Lodge. See the picture. It’s way up here in Alaska. Gorgeous views from our log cabin room.

That’s it for today. Hope you are enjoying the blog.

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