Starling Cycles Murmur
Words by Robert Johnston | Photos Jonathan L Dawson | Video Adam Mcguire
Starling Cycles, one of numerous “steel is real” proponents emerging in the UK market right now, was kind enough to lend us a long term tester to see just how real his steel is. Joe McEwan started Starling in 2015 with the vision of producing strong and reliable single pivot mountain bikes, which eliminate complexity. The goal was to allow for more time on the trail and less time in the workshop. What began with a singular offering, the Swoop – a 155mm travel frame utilising 27.5” wheels – has now expanded to a range of frames, from a single speed downhill bike to a townie. What’s even cooler is that all frames are available with custom geometry, custom spec and are hand built in Bristol, UK.
Customers are able to choose their desired head tube angle, reach, head tube length, seat tube length, and fork and shock sizes. Joe has vast experience to help with the decisions to get you the exact geometry figures that will suit your style.
In this era of ever-growing reach figures and slackening head angles, Starling have managed to capitalize with their custom-built approach, and can offer reach figures as large as 535mm. In 2018, their range was further expanded with the addition of the “factory” built frames – produced in Taiwan from the same high-quality steel, with a lower price tag due to forgoing the custom geometry.
Starling sent me a UK made Murmur frame – a 29er with 145mm of single-pivot rear travel comprising of a mixture of Reynolds and Columbus steel tubing. While this rear travel figure would usually indicate a bike that is aimed more towards the aggressive trail and all mountain segments, the geometry of the Murmur has clear intentions of a bike designed to tackle the most extreme of trails, such as those found on the Enduro World Series circuit.
The bike I was sent to test features a 490mm reach, slack 64.5° head angle, steep 76° seat angle, 38mm BB drop, ultra-short 440mm seat tube length and reasonably long 445mm chainstays, producing a very long 1,275mm wheelbase. The single suspension pivot sits just below the chainline of a 32-tooth front ring to obtain the desired kinematics.
As I eagerly pulled the bike out of the box, the beautiful bronze colour popped out vividly as it struck the sun. The welding on the frame is very well executed, with no irregularities to be seen. The style of welding appears a little industrial, but rest assured these are welds built to stand the test of time. Analyzing the frame as a whole, the industrial looking theme continues: with chunky silver hardware that looks straight from the hardware store; a bolt-on brace for the rear triangle; and external cable routing throughout (apart from the last section of the dropper cable). The gussets and brace feature laser-cut Starling birds, which is a beautiful touch.
Rear axle sizing is 142x12mm; there is a 31.6mm seat tube with a generous straight portion to allow for long travel droppers; a threaded bottom bracket; integrated upper chain guide suitable for a 30-34t chainring; and this frame utilized a 200x57mm rear shock. Newer models have the option to opt for a metric shock sizing and Boost 148 rear axle spacing to keep them up to date with current “standards”. The derailleur mounted directly on to the frame – there’s no replaceable hanger to protect that fragile rear mech.
Everything bolted together with reassuring smoothness. After previous reports of misaligned frames being produced, I popped everything apart for close inspection, and there were no concerns with this particular frame. Joe had previously guaranteed that efforts were being made to improve production quality and quality control, which I can’t disagree with.
Fully built, the bike weighed in at 33.5lbs (15.2kg), with a fairly burly build which matched the bikes intentions. This is no featherweight frame, but with no carbon to be seen, the weight is not ridiculous for a bike of this size. Starling offer full customization for the spec on the bike, and this test machine featured an eclectic mix of a 150mm DVO Beryl fork, Fox DPS shock and 150mm Transfer dropper, Hope Enduro wheelset, Magura MT Trail Brakes, Middleburn RS8 cranks and Shimano XT 11spd drivetrain. Tire clearance with the 2.4 Maxxis tires was very good.
Joe kindly provided me with the bike for a full month of testing, which allowed me to visit many different areas of Scotland and ride a variety of different styles of trail. The majority of the riding was conducted on the rock and root infested terrain of North-Eastern Scotland. For the first three weeks of testing, the trails were uncharacteristically bone dry, with a week of damp riding to round up the test once I was fully comfortable on the bike.
As a leggy 6’2” (188cm) individual, a 490mm reach figure is very comfortable and sits in my preferred range. The slack head angle, low bottom bracket and long rear end don’t conjure images of the bike winding effortlessly through tight switchbacks or having a playful time popping and jibbing around, however throughout my time on the Starling, this notion was often proved incorrect. The poppy single pivot design; combined with the natural ‘spring’ of the narrow diameter steel tubing and the balanced geometry allow the bike to be hopped around the trail with less effort than expected. By no means is this a big wheeled slopestyle bike, but it is more fun on less gnarly tracks than it may seem at first glance and makes less of a fuss of tight sections than you may expect.
What this geometry certainly produces is a bike that is very stable at speed, and the inherent flex of the steel tubing allows the chassis of the bike to conform to the trail. These combine to produce a bike that is happy to hold a line through flat out corners and high-speed rock gardens and delivers a staggering amount of grip and reassurance through off cambers – more so than any other bike I’ve ridden. This resulted in a number of PR’s on Strava sections on my local trails, gaining some time over my personal Santa Cruz Nomad on trails where ultimate traction was required.
In addition, the noise damping of the frame is notable and the bike runs very quietly. The flex is most apparent when pushing the bike hard through tighter corners, especially in cuttie-style maneuvers. The rear end “loads up”, and springs in the opposite direction, giving an interesting pop to the way the Murmur corners. The bike doesn’t particularly suit bike park antics like this, choosing comfort and grip instead of out and out stiffness.
The Fox DPS rear shock was initially supplied with no volume spacers fitted. When combined with the linear single pivot, the bike had to be set up with very little sag to prevent it blowing through its’ travel. Fitting a large volume spacer to the shock helped matters, and I settled on a sag figure of 30%. The basic DPS shock couldn’t keep up with the slightly better performing DVO Beryl fork, providing limited compression control and struggling to deal with the heat on longer descents.
Neither unit was particularly impressive, and the control of the simplistic rear suspension would no doubt be improved with the use of a bigger hitting piggyback style shock such as the Fox Float X2. A bike with geometry offering this much potential to charge hard deserves suspension units to match. Regardless of the limitations of the suspension units, the single pivot performed predictably over the duration of the test. The rear wheel certainly doesn’t get out of the way of trail obstacles as well as a bike with a more rearward axle path, but there is no learning curve required – you can hop on the bike and go without any real adjustment period. This predictability continues over jumps, with a very connected feeling to the rear wheel, allowing you to squash or pop off a lip with ease.
Seated pedalling on the Starling was a comfortable affair, with the steep seat angle and relatively long rear end offering a comfortable and balanced climbing position and the compliant steel tubing helping to eliminate some of the micro-chatter. Unlike some more complex systems, the influence of chain forces on the single pivot of the Murmur is quite noticeable. However, it is not necessarily a negative quality if used smartly.
The chain tension forces when pedaling result in a slight extension of the Starlings’ rear shock, pushing the rear wheel into the ground and raising the BB slightly. The raising of the BB under power is welcome, as the sagged position is exceptionally low. For sections of climbs where traction is limited, this helps to drive the rear tire knobs hard into the soil and generates a lot of mechanical grip, so I was finding myself regularly clearing technical sections of climbs that are usually a struggle for traction.
The downside to this effect of chain forces is when pedalling on rough sections along the flat or on a descent, there is a great amount of feedback through the pedals as the chain forces oppose the wheel trying to get out of the way. On a number of instances early in the test this resulted in the bike hanging up on rougher terrain. I learned to choose my pedaling spots more carefully on the trail to avoid catching pedals or creating too much chain force, instead pumping through the rougher sections to generate the speed.
The single pivot rear end firms up slightly on the brakes, especially noticeable when hard on the brakes over braking bumps, or if trailing the brakes through rough sections. Whilst it’s not an unmanageable amount of brake-jack, the Murmur benefits from choosing braking spots carefully.
The suspension pivot worked loose twice over the duration of testing. The pivot bearings were a little rough, and there was limited Loctite on the pivot bolt – both of which would have increased the likelihood of this occurring. The beauty of the single pivot design was the ease at which the loose item could be identified and rectified.
There are a few points on the Starling that have room for improvement. The integrated top guide present on the frame is a neat touch, however proved to be relatively ineffective as the chain dropped several times over the course of the test. The newer models come with a better performing unit, which should resolve this. The seat tube showed signs of tire rubbing at maximum compression. This wasn’t felt on bottom out, and Joe of Starling responded to say that all new bikes will ship with a Taiwanese-made rear end that resolves the issue. Finally, the non-replaceable mech hanger is a cause for concern in my eyes. While the steel derailleur mount integrated into the frame is no doubt built to last; as rear derailleur prices continue to rise, it would still be good to see a replaceable hanger fitted to reduce the likelihood of their destruction. The Taiwan-built frames will feature a replaceable hanger, as will UK-built models in the near future.
The Wolf’s Last Word
The custom-built Starling Murmur offers the consumer the chance to create a truly unique bike to their exacting specifications. The ride quality offered by the steel tubing gives exceptional grip and a comfortable ride; but might not suit aggressive bike park riders. By fitting high-quality suspension units, the Murmur can be a seriously fast and capable bike for riders who can learn to work with the benefits and limitations of the single-pivot rear suspension.
Price: Frames starting at $1,665
Weight: 33.5 lbs
Frame: Reynolds/Columbus Steel; 145mm
Fork: DVO Beryl, 150mm
Shock: Fox Factory FLOAT DPS, 200x57mm
Brakes: Magura MT Trail
Brake Rotors: Shimano 6 bolt, 203mm
Handlebar: Funn Kingpin, 785mm wide,, 15mm rise, 31.8mm
Headset: Hope Tapered
Saddle: Burgtec The Cloud
Seatpost: Fox Transfer Factory, 150mm
Shifter: Shimano XT; 11s
Stem: Burgtex Enduro, 40mm
Hubs: Hope Pro 2 evo
Rims: Hope Tech Enduro 29”
Tires: Maxxis High Roller 2 29 x 2.4, Exo Casing (f), DD (r)
Bottom Bracket: Hope Threaded
Cassette: Shimano XT 11-46
Cranks: Middleburn RS8; 170mm, 34t
Derailleur: Shimano XT; 11s
Vibration Damping Flex
Single Pivot Isn’t for Everyone
Needs a Good Rear Shock
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