A Grand Day Out With Starling Cycles

by
May 9, 2017

As part of our Grand Day Out Series, we get paid a visit by Joe McEwain of Starling Cycles, and two very special custom steel full suspension bikes

Based out of Bristol, Starling Cycles is a fresh mountain bike brand headed up by former aerospace engineer Joe McEwan. The Starling name has been alive for about four years now, afterJoe got the bug (it caused a horrible rash so we’re told) after going through a week-long course with frame building legend Dave Yates. Joe initially built a singlespeed hardtail for himself, then a trick steel bike for his daughter. Having started to get the feel for the welding torch, Joe then crafted a new front triangle for a cracked Cannondale Prophet frame, followed by a complete full suspension bike – a singlespeed with an eccentric bottom bracket mounted main pivot no less.

As a key project at his day job began to wind down, Joe received a push from his boss (a fellow mountain biker), who suggested he go part time to pursue this bike building malarky and his growing interest in bike design. That proved to be the tipping point for Joe, who began to spend less time in his engineering job, and more time on fabricating and testing bikes. Things have grown somewhat, but it’s still small at Starling Cycles – Joe designs, prototypes and builds each and every frame, and he does it all out of his shed in the back garden of the family house.

But if early ride reports and current waiting lists are anything to go by, things are set to get a whole lot bigger for Joe and his Starling Cycles brand.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Joe McEwan of Starling Cycles mid-ride around Hebden Bridge.

The first contact we made with Joe and one of his frames was at the Bespoked show in Bristol almost exactly this time last year, where his single-pivot 27.5in Swoop frame earned itself a Singletrack Choice award. Following the tidal wave of interest from Singletrack readers after that article was published, we brought you an in-depth feature on Starling Cycles. If you’re interested in the full back story, then make sure you check out Antony’s brilliant article titled “From Shed To Shred“.

More recently, we received an email from Joe, who was keen to come up our way for a visit to show us some of the bikes he’s been working and riding on lately. We lobbed a few dates around, and settled on the first week of May. And following the return of Joe and his family after a 3-week trip to China, the man behind the bird logo jumped in his Fiat van with three homemade bikes, all set for a tortuous drive up the M6 to visit Singletrack Towers in Todmorden.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Joe isn’t just a gun bike designer, he’s also darn handy on two wheels too.

After some mega traffic delays, Joe turned up to an unusually sunny spring morning in Calder Valley. The coffee machine was fired up, brews were brewed, and tales of epic UK traffic pain were shared across the Singletrack kitchen table. Oh, so much pain, and oh, so many tears. Joe had only been up north the weekend prior, having raced one of the PMBA Enduro rounds up in the Lake District, so he was starting to get very familiar with the traffic updates on BBC Radio 2.

Post obligatory British weather and traffic chit-chat, Joe and the rest of us got geared up for an afternoon tour of some of our local trails around Hebden Bridge. Dry, dusty trails, with not a fleck of mud in sight. Choice.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
“The fluoro is definitely waaaay too much. You’ll give people ideas man!”

The two bikes we’re going to take you through here are called the Murmur and the Swoop. Joe only offers three models in his full suspension lineup, with all three bikes being handmade in his shed. All Starling models are crafted from welded steel tubes, and they all use a simple single pivot suspension design with geometry that errs on the modern side of…well…modern. Think ‘long’ and ‘slack’, and then go longerer and slackerer.

First up, the Murmur.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
29in wheels, 145mm travel, and slack. That’s the Starling Murmur.

Starling Cycles Murmur Features

  • Hand built in steel in Bristol, UK
  • Reynolds 853/631 and Columbus Life and Zone tubing
  • 145mm rear travel
  • Single pivot swingarm w/Enduro dual-row cartridge bearings
  • Built for 29in wheels
  • Max tyre clearance: 2.35in
  • Designed for a 150mm travel fork
  • Recommended head angle: 65°
  • Recommended seat angle: 76°
  • 445mm chainstay length
  • 38mm bottom bracket drop
  • 44mm head tube
  • 73mm threaded bottom bracket shell
  • 31.6mm seat tube diameter w/integrated seatpost clamp
  • Fully customisable head tube angle, down tube. length/reach and seat tube length
  • Available as frame only or complete custom build
  • Sizes: Custom
  • RRP: From £1850 (without shock)
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Laser-cut head tube badge apparently cost about 90p to get made. Why would you even bother with stickers?

The first bike we’ve got here from Starling Cycles is the Murmur. The 29in Murmur was first launched in November last year, and following a rave review from Steve Jones (Dirt Magazine) about the same time, Joe received no less than 40 orders overnight. Many more have filtered in since, with more than a handful of British and overseas riders falling in love with the frame’s design, 29in wheels and contemporary geometry. Though given the recent hoo-ha around the launch of the Santa Cruz V10 29er and rumours of other World Cup teams that are set to unveil big-wheeled downhill race bikes, we’re expecting interest in 29in trail and enduro bikes is about to explode. Look out Joe…

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Lovely side-plate gusset work to support the head tube with a 150mm travel fork.

Following the official release of the Murmur, Joe has been further refining and tweaking the geometry still. Compared to the numbers you’ll see on the Starling Cycles website, the Murmur now has a recommended head tube angle of 65°, and a recommended seat tube angle of 76°. Even in the current realm of uber raked-out bikes like those from Mondraker, that’s out there.

Ultimately however, the front end of the frame is entirely customisable according to the customer’s demands. Customers can choose the reach, stack, head tube angle, head tube height, and seat tube height depending on their preferences. And to a degree, you can even spec different front and rear travel by asking Joe to build the frame around a particular fork or rear shock size.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
The Murmur was only introduced barely six months ago, but already has proven to be the most popular option in the Starling Cycles range.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Simple single pivot.

Like every Starling Cycles frame, the Murmur is built from a combination of Reynolds and Colombus steel tubing. It’s got 29in wheels and uses 145mm of suspension travel front and rear. The suspension design is as simple as you can possibly get – just two Enduro cartridge bearings are utilised to pivot the swingarm on a single oversized axle that sits just above the bottom bracket shell.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Those slender stays through the Murmur’s back end are part of the bike’s magic on the trail.

Being a British mountain biker, Joe understands the value of simplicity and serviceability. Despite the uncomplicated suspension design, there’s been a lot of time and effort that has gone into shock and pivot location in order to achieve the traits that Joe wished to achieve.

Firstly, the main pivot sits bang-on inline with the 32t chainring, which helps to mitigate chain growth and pedal feedback through the 140mm of travel. Secondly, the rear suspension delivers an ever-so-slightly regressive rate that couples well with modern air shocks and the inherent ramp-up that a rear shock encounters as it pushes towards the end of its stroke. Along with a carefully tuned shock that Joe has worked on with Chris Porter from Mojo Suspension, the end result is a very smooth, quiet and uninhibited feel to the rear travel.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Function and form. The laser-cut reinforcing strut for the upper swingarm tubes help to minimise twisting from side loads.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Current dropouts are 142x12mm, though Joe will reluctantly build a frame with Boost 148x12mm spacing if you must have it.

The dropouts on the back of the Murmur (and Swoop) use a fully enclosed design with the bolt-up axle end hidden inside the cowling. On the Murmur we rode, axle spacing sits at 142x12mm, though Joe will build your frame around a 148x12mm Boost axle width if you really want. He’ll only build 148x12mm axle spacing out of necessity though – Joe isn’t a big fan of the Boost offset and isn’t convinced there are any real benefits to the design. Given that most hubs and wheels are moving towards Boost spacing front and rear however, Joe’s somewhat obliged to offer the option.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
A look at the enormous amount of mud clearance achieved thanks to the slender tubing and offset seat tube.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Integrated upper chain guide.

Aside from the simple single pivot suspension design, the Murmur frame features loads of concessions towards sensible serviceability. There’s a 73mm threaded bottom bracket shell, full external cable routing (with full-length outer for the rear mech), and a 44mm head tube that allows for a wide variety of steerer tube and headset options, including anglesets for modifying head angle.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Ah that one matches the shirt much better.

Although that gunmetal Murmur has been gloating in all of the media spotlight, it was actually the Swoop that kicked things off for Starling Cycles in the first place. Like the Murmur, the Swoop features an elegant steel frame with a tidy single pivot suspension design. The Swoop runs smaller 27.5in wheels and more travel – 155mm at the back, and a recommended fork travel of 160mm – which puts it into the ‘enduro’ category. Whatever that means.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
The Starling Cycles Swoop getting (somewhat) airborne.

Since Joe first built the Swoop, he’s refined the design significantly, with more modern numbers that are helping to push the design envelope. Part of that has to do with experience. Because each frame is custom made to each customer, Joe develops a better understanding of frame sizing for every bike that he builds. Based on height, inseam and wingspan, Joe can give you an accurate indication of what sort of reach and stack you’ll need to run in order to get the most out of the Swoop frame design.

As for the angles, just like the Murmur, the latest Swoop has gotten slacker in the head angle, and steeper in the seat angle. Though the bike we rode took things a little beyond that…

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Got any slacker? Prototype Swoop from Starling Cycles.

Starling Cycles Swoop Features

  • Hand built in steel in Bristol, UK
  • Reynolds 853/631 and Columbus Life and Zone tubing
  • 155mm rear travel
  • Single pivot swingarm w/Enduro dual-row cartridge bearings
  • Built for 27.5in wheels
  • Max tyre clearance: 2.6in
  • Designed for a 140mm travel fork
  • Recommended head angle: 64°
  • Recommended seat angle: 75.5°
  • 430mm chainstay length
  • 38mm bottom bracket drop
  • 44mm head tube
  • 73mm threaded bottom bracket shell
  • 31.6mm seat tube diameter w/integrated seatpost clamp
  • Fully customisable head tube angle, down tube. length/reach and seat tube length
  • Available as frame only or complete custom build
  • Sizes: Custom
  • RRP: From £1850 (without shock)
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Also handmade in Bristol.

As with all Starling Cycles frames, the Swoop is built in Joe’s shed from a collection of Reynolds and Colombus steel tubes. Thanks to the small operation and access to all the fabricating tools he requires, Joe’s able to turn his design ideas into a reality with relative ease and speed. As such, he’s regularly playing around with different frame designs, geometries, and suspension travel.

starling cycles fox 36
Joe built this Swoop with a 62° head angle to see where the limits were. He found them.

For the blood-red Swoop that Joe brought up with him for his visit to Singletrack Towers, he decided to equip it with a mega-slack 62° head angle and a chunkier 170mm travel Fox 36 fork. Along with a generous 470mm reach, this puts the front wheel way out in front of the rider, so much so that you can actually see the gold Kashima stanchions when you’re seated on the bike looking down past the handlebars. To say this thing is ‘slack’ would be a gross understatement.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Discreet bottle cage bosses underneath the top tube.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Custom-tuned Fox Float X2 shock with Chris Porter magic pixie dust as standard.

Travel pushes up to 155mm on the Swoop, though even that number isn’t fixed. A shorter or longer stroke shock and a change to the location of the shock mount on the downtube allows Joe to tweak the rear suspension travel (and feel) for an array of different setups. Our test bike featured a custom-tuned Fox Float X2 rear shock that arrived on the Swoop after some fettling from Mojo head-honcho and all-round mountain biking guru, Chris Porter.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
You can custom spec the seat tube length, depending on your preferred saddle height and dropper post travel.

Although Starling Cycles offers numerous shock options with the Swoop and Murmur frames (and indeed you can fit your own existing shock to it too), should you elect for a Fox option, you’ll get a 10% reduction on the shock’s RRP, and the shock will arrive custom tuned for the bike, plus you get a complimentary suspension set-up session at Mojo HQ.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Cowled 142x12mm dropouts and tidy disc brake brace.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
The characteristic stainless steel brace for the swingarm upper tubes on the Swoop.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
How nice is that internal dropper port?
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
The single pivot suspension design may look simple, but there’s a load of attention to detail to be found.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Practical external cable routing. We like.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
This bike just looks so darn mean.

Despite some of the benefits that the super-slack geometry provides on the custom Swoop, Joe conceded that he went too far with this prototype. Unless you’re absolutely monstering the bike and committing to every single corner with vigour, the lack of weight on the front wheel tends to push wide through the turns, and especially when traction is at a premium. That said, it proved to be a fun experiment for Joe, and one that he’s been able to learn from. For production Swoops, Joe recommends a head tube angle of around 64° – still slack, but not quite as floppy on terrain that isn’t vertical.

starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
Practicing for cyclocross season.
starling cycles swoop murmur pecketwell hebden bridge steel wil joe
A rare shot of Joe with (one) wheel on the ground. This man is fast!

Following our afternoon of sessioning the Hebden Bridge trail network and a recovery-pasty from the local bakery, we got back into Joe’s van and cruised along through the valley to return to headquarters at Singletrack Towers. We filed into the workshop along with the three bikes Joe brought up with him from Bristol, fired up the cameras, and went live on Facebook to give you a closer look at each frame and to allow people to submit questions to Joe while they were watching.

If you’d like more information about the Starling Cycles range, or you have a question for Joe about geometry and frame options, head through to the Starling Cycles website for all there is to know.