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Bike Review

Starling Murmur 29 Factory Reviewed

Words Perry Schebel
Photos Dave Smith
Date Sep 24, 2018

Steel

In an age when most high end frames are molded in complex computer modeled shapes from high tech carbon composites, bikes welded together with skinny ferrous tubes seem decidedly anachronistic. While there's a decent selection of steel hardtails to be found these days, suspension bikes utilizing the stuff are fairly scarce. This isn't entirely surprising as it's heavier and harder to machine than aluminum, so fabricating the additional bits and pieces required to assemble a suspension bike becomes more of a chore, and weight begins to creep up as you add complexity. Why choose steel, then? For custom builders, the material is relatively forgiving and doesn't require heat treating facilities - ie, allowing you to build out of the space of your garage - which is where Starling Cycles was birthed. The material is also fairly robust - impact and fatigue resistant, is (somewhat) repairable, and may or may not possess a certain je ne sais quoi ride quality vaunted by some. The skinny tubes certainly exude a classic minimalism that I find refreshing.

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The Starling presents a refreshingly clean silhouette. 

How to capitalize on the benefits of steel while minimizing drawbacks? Start with a simple silhouette, reduce the amount of tube manipulation required, and there's a good chance you'll end up with something similar to what you see here: a simple single pivot with a minimal number of machined bits. Enough waxing poetically about sensuous steel structures. Briefly: who is Starling Cycles, and what do we have in our hands? Starling was founded by Joe McEwan in Bristol, England in 2015. A classic cottage industry enterprise, he started hand-building steel bikes in his shed. A couple years later, as demand rose, Joe decided to offer a Taiwanese built iteration of his short travel Murmur wagon wheeler. Same great geometry, at a reduced price. 

The British bike offers custom geometry, but at a premium - £2040 for frame without shock, vs. £1850 (£1682 outside the EU, about $2900 CAD) for the Taiwan built Factory with a Rockshox Debonair shock. Build kits (full or partial) may also be ordered direct from Starling with your frame purchase.  

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Here be the specs. Fairly standard comtemporary stuff.  

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Geometry is firmly within the realm of newschool cool.  

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No complex leverage curves here. 

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Though the water bottle mount location is unconventional, it's easily accessed, and will fit a large bottle.  

Bits & Bobs 

A quick look at details. I love the sparse minimalist aesthetic of the small diameter steel-tubed frame. No gratuitous tube torturing going on here. The TIG welding is tidy, and the cable routing is clean. Only the dropper post cable is routed internally - entering just above the pivot shell. There's a neat semi integrated top chain guide that bolts to the swingarm, and there's (gasp) a water bottle mount within the front triangle - albeit hanging a bit unconventionally below the top tube. While it looks a bit funky, it works well enough - as long as your cage has enough top support. I used a side loader and didn't experience any bottle drops. The pivot interface seems robust, staying wiggle free throughout the duration of the test. My only nitpick would be with the ragged mastic tape chainstay protector; hopefully production will see something tidier in place. Weight for the bike as it sits was a tick over 32lbs. Not a featherweight by any means, but not unreasonable for a bomber build. This spec was carbon free, so there's some room for pinching grams if that's a priority. 

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This bike introduced me to the merits of longer chainstays. 

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Under the stray loam hides a nicely integrated upper guide mount. 

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Bolt on brace exudes retro vibe. Note the wee starling cutout detail. 

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Some tidy CNC bits encapsulate the singular set of pivot bearings. 

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The rear dropout region is similarly clean. Skinny steel tubes: so elegant. 

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Tire clearance wasn't tight by any means, but the production frame will see even more spacious chainstays. 

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Lots of breathing room up here. 

Geometry

While not quite inhabiting the realm of the superstretch chassis of Geometrons and Poles, the Starling is certainly on the longer side of bikes in this travel range (140mm rear, 150mm front). My size large frame sports a 485mm reach, 445mm chainstays, and a 65° head angle, pushing the wheelbase out to 1260mm. I remember, not long ago, when a 4' (1219mm) DH bike wheelbase was lengthy. The times, they are changing. This bike straddles a couple genres, inhabiting a grey area that I find particularly appealing. The travel numbers place it firmly in trailbike territory, while the geometry nudges it into the realm of aggressive Enduro rigs. In which realm does the Starling reside? Does it really matter? Let's find out. 

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The Starling hunkers down on the climbs just fine. 

Upward Mobility

A steep 77° seat tube angle reigns in the slack head angle and lengthy reach nicely, placing you in a climbing position that's centered on the longer wheelbase. In conjunction with the rangy rear centre, there's no need to skootch up on the tip of the saddle to keep the front end down. The centred weight distribution makes for a solid steep tech climber, and the bike had no problem negotiating our tightest climbing trail switchbacks. Fear not the length. Shorter travel, plus a decent amount of anti-squat also makes for a solid pedaler. I never felt the need to fiddle with the compression lever on the Rockshox Monarch shock. 

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Those that say bikes with big wheels and stretched and slack geometry are no fun haven't tried a good one. This rig is brappy good times. 

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140mm travel does not make a huck machine, but the Starling definitely hits above its weight. 

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Carving a long and slack 29er aggressively requires a bit more input, but once accustomed, feels so right. 

Suspension

The simple single pivot platform is relatively linear in its leverage rate. Linearity + short travel = a bit of work finding the optimum balance between plushness (grip) and big hit eating capability. I eventually ended up in a zone that sacrificed some suppleness for decent mid to bottom stroke support. Though the bike did still push through full travel more frequently than ideal (stuffing the air can a bit more would probably be in order), it didn't bottom harshly. This doesn't sound like a glowing analysis, but I did like the overall character of the suspension in practice. While not a barcalounger with my settings, the bike had good pop, and charged well through the chunk for its travel. Skewed more towards crush than plush, befitting an aggressive riding style. 

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What's a classic Shore ride without a bit of janky apparatus? 

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Semi decommissioned, with a coating of slimy death for extra excitement. 

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A stout single pivot, built to last. I think there's some symbolism going on here.  

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Evidently the venerable bar turn was the theme of this shoot. 

Downwardly Inclined

How does all of the above translate when the trail turns down? What I found most endearing about this bike was the balanced and confident poise afforded by the somewhat stretched and slack chassis. While many companies are still insisting on pairing long front centers with stubby chainstays, a lengthier rear center makes all sorts of sense. You're able to drive both wheels aggressively with a relaxed, centered stance. There's also a noticeably larger "sweet spot" range of fore-aft body position which I found made subtle dynamic chassis shifts easier, more relaxed. It's a bit of a nuanced characteristic, but makes for confidence inspiring handling when turning up the wick. Yes, length plus big wheels plus slackness requires a bit more muscle driving into corners, but it's a quick adjustment, and the bike carves nicely - again, it's all about that balance. Similarly, manualling with a 17 1/2" chainstay takes more effort (coming off a shorter bike), but one soon learns to adapt. That said, it's a fun, well balanced jumper, aided by the aforementioned poppy platform. 

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Classic Pacific Northwest Temperate Rainforest riding. This, I love.  

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The forest giveth, and the forest taketh away. A moister variation on the ashes to ashes theme. 

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The local forest mollusk shares an affinity for dank, slimy trails. 

Despite a relatively meager 5 1/2" of rear travel, the bike was more than happy charging well above its pay grade. The ride gets a bit rough in the big chunk, but the chassis stays nicely composed, rarely punishing you for indiscretions. Interestingly, the long bike was surprisingly adept in tight jank and even held its own on old school skinnies, somewhat nullifying the notion (for me), that such modern geometry has a narrow window of optimal use. At 6' tall, I can't say I ever wished for less length. If anything, it made me curious how the even rangier XL size would fare.    

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A solid technical playbike this be. 

So what about the mythical "feel of steel"? I can't definitively say the material made a significant contribution to the bike's character, but the ride was neither harsh nor flexy, the rear end providing (perhaps) a modicum more lateral compliance when leaned over than some of the latest carbon frames I've ridden. Subtle stuff, regardless. More than anything, I dig the skinny tube aesthetic, not to mention the lack of stress not having to worry about bumps & scrapes damaging a fragile frameset.    

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Despite a bit of length between the big wheels, this is a reasonably adept tight corner carver. 

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Final thoughts

This is an interesting bike. Idiosyncratic, in a good way. It's certainly low tech, and the suspension platform isn't quite as efficient as some other more complex designs I've ridden, but as a package this bike comes together really well. Dialed geometry resulting in a supremely versatile and confidence inspiring chassis - a really comfortable fit. Trail bike or Enduro? Whatever you want it to be, really. Genre straddlers are often compromised at the fringes of the spectrum; this is simply a shredder of a mountain bike, categorization be damned. As one who likes to hold on to bikes for a while, the idea of a simple, low-maintenance frame that I'm not afraid to ride hard, put away wet, and toss into the weeds on occasion, is appealing. Perhaps a bit indicative of my predilection for slightly off-kilter rides, but this is the kind of bike I'd keep for a good long time, and never get bored of. 

Comments

fartymarty
0
fartymarty  - Sept. 23, 2018, 11:37 p.m.

Great review Perry.  This bike is on the top of my wishlist (funds permitting spring '19).  I have loved Joe's bikes since I saw the first Swoop.  They're so clean and simple which appeals.

Sizing wise I am thinking of XL for my 6'1" height.  After riding one what would be your thoughts.  I'm 95kg so don't mind pushing a big bike around and want something that I can keep for many years.

Thanks in advance for comments.

Martin

Reply

jon
0
Jon Harris  - Sept. 24, 2018, 7:30 a.m.

I'm 6'2" and rode this L frame quite a bit when it was around, including ticking LOTS off the list in Whistler. I'd be more than happy with this reach for me.

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shoreboy
0
Shoreboy  - Sept. 24, 2018, 8:20 a.m.

I haven't ridden this bike, but a previous review stated that it might be on the flexy side of the spectrum if you are in the 90kg + realm. I will also assume that there weren't any rear triangle alignment issues as were found in that same previous review.  Im not sure if you would be able to throw a leg over one before purchase, but it would be something to consider if it were me.

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fartymarty
0
fartymarty  - Sept. 24, 2018, 8:30 a.m.

I will probably speak to Joe at Starling about it.  Bristol is only a 2 hour drive away so not a biggie.

Reply

xy9ine
0
Perry Schebel  - Sept. 25, 2018, 8:58 a.m.

this bike was dead straight, and the rear was actually quite stiff laterally (though the length & skinny tubes don't give that appearance). of course, i'm only 165lbs, so don't flex frames to the same extent as some. 

regarding sizing - the large is as long as quite a few XL's out there, so you could go either way, really. i'd skew the choice depending on the nature of it's intended use (ie, tighter tech/ trail vs higher speed charging).

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jon
0
Jon Harris  - Sept. 25, 2018, 3:55 p.m.

I think the "flexy" aspect of this frame is overstated and it tends to get people all worried because of the frame material. My Yeti SB6C was also flexy, so much so I could get the chainstay to rub on my crank under hard pedalling. I can't do that with this frame and yes there is some flex in the bike but it makes this bike really calm through rough sections of trail. I've not detected the flex being a negative for me and I've ridden this actual bike tested and also my own custom Murmur for over a year now.

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flowrider
0
flowrider  - Sept. 24, 2018, 12:26 a.m.

Great review. I'd love to try one of these out. Do they have distribution in the GVRD?

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DaveSmith
0
Dave Smith  - Sept. 24, 2018, 8:51 a.m.

Pretty sure that distribution is a broad term for a manufacturer this small 

https://www.starlingcycles.com/product/starling-cycles-murmur-factory-edition-non-eu/

Reply

xy9ine
0
Perry Schebel  - Sept. 25, 2018, 8:59 a.m.

direct sales for now.

Reply

NickB
+4 Niels Jon Harris Cr4w legbacon
nick bitar  - Sept. 24, 2018, 1:12 a.m.

I just picked up my cromo Chromag from the panel beater after denting the top tube and it looks as good as new. You won’t hear anyone saying that about the latest carbon wonder bike!

Reply

phile
0
phile  - Sept. 24, 2018, 6:20 p.m.

Not claiming carbon is as durable as steel--it's not--and it will never look "as good as new," but it turns out DIY carbon repair is pretty easy. It's only slightly more involved than fiberglass. 

The carbon rear triangle on my Hei Hei Trail is surprisingly fragile; I've cracked and repaired it in 3 different places this summer. I'm getting pretty decent at it. 

Most recently was Saturday, 2 days ago, at 6pm, before an 8am enduro in Mammoth bike park. I was dirtbagging in a minivan on Forest Service land near the resort. The cold-ish mountain weather meant I had to use quick-set epoxy, and I didn't have access to a heat gun (or vacuum equipment), but I fixed it in a couple of hours (3 layers/batches: epoxy, then epoxy+carbon fiber, then epoxy) inside the minivan, and it held up just fine for a very chunky enduro race.

Reply

craw
+1 phile
Cr4w  - Sept. 24, 2018, 6:33 p.m.

It sucks that this is even necessary though I'm glad you have a reliable workaround.

Reply

phile
0
phile  - Sept. 24, 2018, 6:54 p.m.

It was a big surprise to me for sure! (Uh, more so the first time than now...) I weigh 140 lbs and think of myself as easy on parts (e.g., I run less than 20 psi in both tires). During practice this weekend I saw someone destroy a carbon Santa Cruz rim at moderate speed on chunky terrain--he said he had 26 psi in it (he looked like he weighed <175 lbs), and he had no idea exactly what he had hit. Sounded like a balloon popping--everyone said "ooooh" in unison. During the race I almost landed on a guy who had just crashed off a blind drop and snapped his seat off its carbon rails. (He finished the stage with his seat tucked in his waistband.)

Reply

Kenny
+1 Cr4w
Kenny  - Sept. 24, 2018, 10:21 a.m.

Such a a rad frame. I have been tempted by a cotic rocket for a while now. 

I was surprised by this:

"£2040 for frame without shock, vs. £1850 (£1682 outside the EU, about $2900 CAD) for the Taiwan built Factory with a Rockshox Debonair shock."

Even taking the shock into account that seems like a pretty small differential? IMO that price seems quite low for the custom British option and a little high for the off-the-shelf Taiwan model? Is what it is I guess.

Reply

cooperquinn
0
Cooper Quinn  - Sept. 24, 2018, 3:57 p.m.

But did the skinny straight tubes appeal to you? Was its minimalist aesthetic found worthy?

Reply

xy9ine
0
Perry Schebel  - Sept. 24, 2018, 4:12 p.m.

it's entirely possible my personal biases bled into this a bit. let me ponder these thoughts a while longer.

Reply

earleb
+2 Niels Mammal
earle.b  - Sept. 24, 2018, 4:44 p.m.

Disappointed not to see any Santa comments in here. 

Joe's original home builds he posted in a Pinkbike forum where the motivation for me to build my first full suspension frame. 

Skinny steel tubes ftw.

Reply

jon
+1 Niels
Jon Harris  - Sept. 25, 2018, 3:57 p.m.

Someone needs to get Perry some red riding kit to test.

Reply

xy9ine
0
Perry Schebel  - Sept. 27, 2018, 10:46 a.m.

no. just no.

Reply

cyclotoine
0
cyclotoine  - Sept. 25, 2018, 9:35 a.m.

If you compare top tube length to other major brands it really isn’t that long. The reach is long because of the steep seat tube but really if you ride xl you should ride xl in this too so you have the same cockpit length and actually benefit from the progressive forward geo. As one point the xl murmur is less than 1 cm longer in effective top tube than an xl Rocky Mountain instinct. Of course I haven’t ridden it, but I’ve never test ridden any bike I’ve owned, always ordered, because no one stocks XL in the model I want.

Reply

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