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Tubeless road tire system gets a classics win at Het Volk.

After racing the final 22 kilometers alone, off the front, Francaise des Jeux rider Philippe Gilbert crossed the finish of Omloop Het Volk last week in victory. It was the second Het Volk win for the Belgian; his first came in 2006. The 2008 win was special to two of his sponsors and was a milestone for road technology, because Gilbert crossed the line on a tubeless wheel and tire.

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By Matt Pacocha

Gilbert at Het Volk

Gilbert at Het Volk

Photo: Courtesy Shimano

After racing the final 22 kilometers alone, off the front, Francaise des Jeux rider Philippe Gilbert crossed the finish of Omloop Het Volk last week in victory. It was the second Het Volk win for the Belgian; his first came in 2006. The 2008 win was special to two of his sponsors and was a milestone for road technology, because Gilbert crossed the line on a tubeless wheel and tire.

It was more than four years ago that prototype tubeless road tires started popping up in the pro peloton, but it wasn’t until two years ago that Shimano and Hutchinson presented their tubeless system to the public. The technology is well received and should considered by those looking for a happy medium between tubulars and clinchers, including both Lennard Zinn and me here at VeloNews. The technology hasn’t exactly been wholeheartedly embraced, in part because the only manufacturers pushing it are Shimano and Hutchinson.

Het had the perfect roads — cobblestones, wet surfaces and short steep climbs — to capitalize on the advantages the tubeless system offers: Grip and puncture resistance. The week before the race Gilbert and his FDJ teammates reconnoitered the crux sections using the system. After the test Gilbert and three teammates chose to race the system, which is comprised of Shimano’s new WH-7850-SL scandium-rimmed wheels and Hutchinson’s Fusion 2 tires.

The FDJ riders have been training with the wheels since January. But a new sealant clinched the deal. With it, the team was confident the system is even less flat-prone than tubulars, said Frederic Vanoli, chief of technical affairs for Francaise des Jeux.

Even so, Gilbert did suffer a rear flat during the race, which is more likely attributed to chance than a fault of the system. The Belgian’s rear flat didn’t seem to dampen the team’s enthusiasm for continued use of the system through out this spring’s races.

Puncture protection was key, especially considering the rather high pressures Gilbert used (7 bar or 102 psi in the front and 7.5 bar or 109 psi in the rear). Het Volk has only 16km of cobbles, but on rougher course, the system’s ability to run lower pressures would be an advantage.

Despite the successes of the tubeless system on the battlefields of the spring classics and semi-classics, FDJ has no plan to bring the technology to the Grand Tours. There the lightweight of carbon wheels and tubulars outweigh the advantages of the tubeless system’s durability.

“In team Francaise des Jeux [we only use tubeless] in Belgium and the north of France with cobblestones,” said Vanoli, “not in stage races.”

For the rest of us, not racing at the head of a ProTour peloton, the advantages of comfort, grip and puncture resistance make road tubeless a viable technology that’s still worth a look.