Handmade Starling steel 150mm strikes an impressive balance between flex and stiffness
Whatever material you choose to build a mountainbike, the balance between compliance and stiffness is at the very heart of the bike yet is still one of the most frequently overlooked and misunderstood practices.
The properties of aluminium and steel vary greatly but carbon is now believed to be sexier than both when examining bicycle structures. But such a theory is tipped on its head when design and material quantities are of such varying styles and measures. We have ridden overbuilt harsh aluminium bikes and skinny, flexy, noisy and baggy carbon bikes. It’s a material that many are still learning to use.
And it is within this landscape of creaking, groaning and diminishing returns associated with carbon, a drought of ideas on how to form an aluminium frame, that we briefly return to the ways of old – simple steel and the Starling, homemade 150mm by Joe McEwan in Bristol.
SHAPE AND PURPOSE
I’ve been swapping emails with Joe for over a decade. He’d been threatening me about single speed full suspension (still is), single pivots and his feelings for steel, but it was only spring last year that I finally got to sample one of his works.
The simplicity and the silence of that early bike was impressive but I was less than happy with the damper, the fork and the frame flex. And so, several months later here we have up to date numbers, a strengthened frame, a damper worth its weight, together with a reliable fork and some half tidy componentry on this the Mk3 150mm trail/enduro bike.
On the angles, a minus 10mm drop on the bottom bracket puts it in line with a Kona Process, Commencal Meta V4 or Canyon Strive, but the 65 degree head angle is one of the slackest around. Only the Mojo Geometron drops down to 63 degree numbers. The frame material is a mix of True Temper Supertherm – said to be the ultimate tubing for strength and low weight – and Colombus Zona tubing.
Remember custom geometry is till an option here. McEwan keeps it all gloriously simple for riders in that respect however and highlights only the downtube, seat tube and head tube angle/length as optionable changes in dimensions. Joe reckons he can get the tubing on downtube to a length that would equate to about a 500mm reach maximum. This means there’s potentially a bike in there for six foot plus riders too which would make it one of the longest 150mm bikes on the market and not a million miles off an XL Mondraker Dune or Nicolai Geometron. The closest comparison to this particular Starling would be a size large Dune but with a lower bottom bracket and slacker head angle. Perfect on paper.
Weigh in – 29.8lbs (with pedals)
Head angle: 65
BB Drop: -10mm
The Starling was received extremely well on the website and social media when we put it up at the end of the year. However one Petr Ice Ice Stuka (location unknown) came up with a beautifully clueless quote on Facebook. “Single pivot? Wake up its 2016.” It seems there are many who are still fully blinded by some of the bullshit thrown up in this industry.
It’s a simple bike with uncomplicated suspension ways. The swingarm pivots in a location very similar to many single pivot bikes – just on the chainline and slightly forward of the bottom bracket.
The big news is the fitting of a quality damper. After last years outing on the earlier bike I told Joe to get some quality damping on board and put him in touch with the EXT Racing Suspension boys (who we did a feature on last year) and the Storia is now a central, and as we were to remind ourselves, impressive part of the bike.
McEwan has teamed up with Funn components on this build and the Starling features Funn carbon cranks, a Funn wheelset, bar, stem and seat. It’s a solid set of parts finished off with Shimano XT brakes and Shimano Zee gearing.
After a couple of runs I knew we had a problem with the Starling. Its owner Joe needed it back for another magazine and I simply wanted to keep riding it and had every intention of holding onto this beautiful piece of work for as long as I possibly could.
From the get go the Starling picks up pace quick, the cornering is balanced and the grip is very impressive. The trail dives into root and rock, the line is held and so to the speed. Having ridden this section many times I know it intimately and how a bike responds, the Starling certainly takes the hits rather than deflects them. Combination, lefts and rights, the reaction is good the bike leans in, speeds out. More combination corners to a double stream g-out section and the bike springs into action yet again with an unmistakeable trait that appears to hold a line exceptionally well, working with the ground rather than against it as we have found with so many bikes recently.
The Starling has life in its bones, skinny they may well be but this steel horse packs a superbly upbeat ride characteristic. It has life where so many aluminium and carbon bikes lack. I like it a lot.
The conditions needed to be considered so we had brought in some benchmark material as a comparison. The going was wet and heavy, speeds were slower on our trail bike tracks but the grip and the give on the Starling were certainly better than our comparison bike. Sizing was excellent for a 6ft rider and what some people forget is that if a bike gets slightly too long then the speed of rider adjustment in continually sliding wet, muddy conditions can be fractionally less than a shorter wheelbase bike. True, drier, fast, steeper conditions might favour the longer bikes but what we’re saying here is the Starling had good sizing without being unwieldy. It was a bike where it was easy to anticipate and adjust to the continual sliding.
Of course all this could be by chance, or maybe it was more calculated (lets not forget that McEwan is an aerospace stress boffin) but I believe this bike to have one of the most compelling ride characteristics of any 150mm travel bike in the business. Chassis, damper, fork, wheels and cranks all in unison. Top ten all time trail/enduro? That’s where we’re thinking at the minute.
The Storia shock certainly played a key role in this performance too and it was good to revisit a shock I’d spent a reasonable amount of time on during the development stages of the damper. Its low pressure system certainly is unique and it undoubtedly aided the grip on this bike.
Over the test period I had no doubts about the bike but long term its only the durability that is largely unproven. But come on they make bmx bikes out of this material so it must have some integrity. In terms of small detail the rear wheel clearance is very tight on the seat stay and we’d like to wait until we’re able to hit dry hard conditions to see how it responds to harder loading in faster dry corners. The front end is also a shade low meaning you’ll need at least 40mm spacers to play with above the headtube to get the ride position spot on.
So has Joe McEwan struck the balance between flex and stiffness? Yes he has. The Starling offers a clean, crisp and silent but with energising life in its bones.
Some people say “we’ve seen it before” but have we? Really? Good angles, size, weight and that all-important flex/stiffness balance all properly co-ordinated? I don think so, in aluminium maybe but not steel. This bike is fully up to date. And it so quiet.
Part of the beauty for many I guess is that its hand made in a shed in Bristol. And the finish is of a very high quality. For me its the ride characteristic gets it on the team sheet for this year’s trail/enduro bike test very easily, I’m eager to get it back to back with bikes three to four times its price. Grab one while you can, a great start to the year.
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