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If you’re Tom Boonen then you can have any bicycle you want. As a professional rider, Boonen often rode prototypical frames, newly engineered carbon designs that hadn’t even come to the market. And while the tall Belgian from Mol always seemed so superhuman among the bergs and cobbles of Flanders, at the end of the day, he’s really just like us. These days, his ride of choice is a marriage of new technology and handmade cycling heritage from his Flemish homeland. The appeal of a unique steel bike that doesn’t look like anyone else’s and the ability to be a part of the building process has the retired icon—and Flanders’ youngest Lion—doting over his new custom steel rig, built by Flemish custom cycling outfit Jaegher.
Jaegher has been making bicycles since 2012, but the brand’s ties to Belgian cycling history run much deeper. Jaegher started in the workshop that once produced Merckx’s Molteni frames and now it’s working with third-generation framebuilder Eddy Maertens (no, no relation) whose grandfather Artur finished fifth in the inaugural edition of the Ronde, and then eventually went from racing to making bikes in the early 20th century.
For Jaegher, it’s about a fusion of that Belgian cycling heritage with modern technology. “In Belgium, still a lot of people think of a custom brand producing steel frames as something old-fashioned, but the opposite is true,” says Jaegher’s Emanuel Ramoudt. “The materials we are using evolve continuously. Small scale production by hand has many advantages.” As a brand that is only producing around 80 bicycles a year, Jaegher has the ability to spend time with each customer, and as technology or trends change, it’s able to modify its techniques or offerings from one frame to the next.
For Tom Boonen, the idea of having a custom steel bicycle was appealing as a return to the experiences of his early racing days. The technology-driven approach of Jaegher, and the fact that it is a small, local operation was precisely what appealed to him. “I haven’t had a bicycle built for me like this since 2001, my last year as an amateur,” said Boonen. “It was a Columbus frame. I picked out the components I wanted, and a Dutch builder made me a bicycle. In some ways it’s sort of a return to how I used to do things. When I was a kid, it was always like this: you picked the tubes you wanted, and the components, they took your measurements. Nowadays the bicycle industry wants you to sort of buy a whole bike right off the shelf, but this was a really nice experience working with Jaegher.”
“When I was racing I was always one of those guys who was constantly talking with the engineers—whether it was Specialized, or whomever—providing them my feedback, what the bike needed, or what maybe it didn’t, so I’ve always paid attention to these things, and the finer details that can make an impact,” said Boonen. “I’ve always been kind of a geek about bikes, and technology, and so, working with the guys at Jaegher, I could even pick the bolts I wanted for the bottle cages. Everything was a possibility.”
As a professional, Boonen was contractually bound to race whatever his team negotiated with its sponsors; in retirement, he’s calling the shots. “Tom reached out in 2020 and made an appointment to sit down with us,” said Ramoudt. “From there it was in many ways very similar to our normal process. Of course we were honored, but in the end it is nothing particularly different than it would be with other customers. Although with Tom’s palmarès, we’re not going to teach him anything about a bicycle.”
Boonen selected the Jaegher Ascender Pure, featuring a Jaegher designed road race geometry crafted to his specifications. The tubing is ultralight stainless Columbus XCR, TIG welded, along with silver fillet brazed when called for. Boonen’s componentry is cutting edge, featuring a new rear-hub based wireless shifting technology from Belgian brand Classified (which counts Boonen as an investor) that replaces the front derailleur.
Perhaps because it had been a while since he’d actually selected all the componentry on his bike, Boonen was pretty interested in weighing in on every element of the build. “When the Classified 1×22 shifting system was finalized, we custom fit the frame to accommodate this system,” said Ramoudt. “It doesn’t need a front derailleur, so we were able to make some specific tweaks to Tom’s bike for this new kind of shifting.”
These days you see the term “custom” being used by the big bike brands, but in terms of a true “measure-made” build, there’s a significant difference between the two worlds in the bicycle industry. “The big brands talk about custom because they want to express an emphasis on the customer experience,” explains Ramoudt. “The custom options, though, are limited to a choice of gruppo and a couple different paint schemes. Here at Jaegher, we’re able to build the bicycle to fit your body and take into account your needs and wants. In many ways it’s a consultative, collaborative process. That was what Tom was looking for when he came to Jaegher.”
The final look is hand brushed steel, with very little paint, just a few accents to the seattube and the fork, all picked out by Boonen. “I got the bike just before winter, so it’s still new,” said Boonen. “Maybe I’ve only gotten in 20 rides or so before the weather got bad. These days I don’t have to ride when I don’t feel like it, but just talking to you about it, I’m excited to get back on it when spring arrives. I think there are lots of different materials that you can make a bicycle from, but here, on our roads in Flanders, steel feels the best. Maybe it’s not as light as carbon, but over a long career I’ve found that the frame materials aren’t any better, just different. Steel feels a certain way, it’s hard to explain. It’s like it gives you free momentum.”
In spring each year we turn our attention to Flanders, romanticizing a culture, heritage and history celebrating the beauty of bicycle racing. It’s not just a mythos, but a way of life. Cycling is in the blood in Flanders, from the crazed fans to the iconic riders. Jaegher is building steel frames in Gent as a way of continuing that history for cyclists who want a bicycle designed specifically for Flemish roads with a slick, contemporary look. Boonen’s new bike is perhaps the most perfect culmination of what cycling means in Flanders: one of Belgium’s cycling icons pedaling its famous roads on a boutique Belgian bicycle built by a third generation Flemish frame builder.
More at jaegher.be