Starling Murmur 29 Factory Reviewed
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.