Starling Murmur - the steel bike that's blown us away - Dirt

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Starling Murmur – the steel bike that’s blown us away

The Starling Murmur leaves us stunned, raising questions and expectations

THIS GARDEN SHED BUILT STEEL 145MM BIKE has changed our expectations GREATLY. NOw WE KNOW HOW A GOOD MID TRAVEL BIKE CAN AND SHOULD FEEL LIKE. the Starling Murmur LEAVES US ASKING THE QUESTION – DOES ALUMINIUM OR CARBON FIBER REALLY HAVE A PERFORMANCE ADVANTAGE AT ALL?

Words and Images. S Jones

Clearly the same rules apply to steel as they do to any other mtb frame material be it aluminium or carbon, and that is that the material alone does not make a great bike. And equally, don’t always equate material with performance.

Thursday 28th February was a pretty big moment in time.

It also gave us an understanding that sensation and speed should not be confused. That a bike that feels quick is not always going to be quick.

In fact this was emphatically proved to us that over many timed runs the bike that felt the fastest (and cost the most) was in fact the slowest bike. We’ve encountered this before with comparisons of wheel size but not so much on a same wheel size/different frame material.

It was then only by chance that a bunch of some of the finest 29” wheel mountainbikes ranging between 135mm to 165mm had found their way into the back of the van to get some testing done under some of the best conditions of the year, not too heavy not too dry.

The chosen track comprised plenty of root and rock, a ton of braking bumps, flat corners, bermed corners, jumps and some testing extended root sections.

That this, the 145mm Starling Murmur was fastest pretty much blew our minds, leaving us staring at the stopwatch in disbelief. The bike we thought might be the slowest before heading onto the hill was in fact the quickest. But once into the first corner we kind of knew it was never going to be far off. Leaning into turns the geometry holding the rider in balance and the frame talking back… “yer I’ve got you, push a bit harder there’s loads more grip where that came from.”

SHAPE AND FEELING

So how does this steel, single pivot, built in garden shed bike perform? Quite simply like no other. And in an industry of such diversity of linkage design and material it’s a big statement. It begins with the material and it ends with the tyres tearing into the dirt. In between there’s a ton of stuff going on, “some of it simple, some of it luck” as the carbon fibre boffin behind the bike puts it.

The steel tubing comes in various blends, some Columbus, some Reynolds 631, some simple mild steel. There’s a lazer etched piece and there’s a load of brazing but mostly there’s nothing but smooth lines, a very good build quality and something that is genuinely small scale artisan. The Starling Murmur has had a delicate touch.

A few weeks ago I visited Barcelona to the design studio of Unno bikes. The man behind that brand, Cesar Rojo had spun some magic numbers on his 130mmx29” wheel trail bike which prompted me to say “best ever geometry.” Well I’m going to have to make a monumental pirouette here and say the Starling Murmur beats it. 65 head angle/480mm reach/335mm bottom bracket are some of the main figures.

Up front the 110mm headtube keeps the bar low, this is key. It’s not quite the 85mm marvel from Barcelona in this respect but it works. The 480mm reach is allows space but the hugely important numbers of front centre and chainstay deliver a balanced ride.

The bottom bracket which sits at one of the lowest in the business (335mm) enables the rider to drive hard and generate bite. The pace and balance of the Murmur through corners is utterly incredible.

It feels different, its silence a far cry from some of the cable rattling, bottom bracket creaking, overpriced carbon. Yes there are carbon bikes that are as soft and silent and worth every penny. But most are very common too. This has the very best qualities, is exclusive made to order and rides like a dream. And comes at a fraction of the cost. For now at least.

Look, it’s not quite got the direct drive that a carbon bike has on hillclimbs and smooth singletrack, in those places there will be better than the Starling Murmur, but it certainly delivers less fatigue in root and rock sections, the rougher grounds that many consider to be the essence of mountainbiking. In fact when pedalling flat but rooty ground the compliance allows the rider to pedal through without deflection or grip being affected too much.

LIMITATIONS

It was totally silent in 120mm mode but did make a slight bit of noise when dropped into 145mm. I’m certain this will be addressed immediately by Joe. The damper bolts are also fiddly being too small.

Clad with Shimano Deore and SLX components with good but skinny Fox 34 forks the Starling many would consider that the Murmur would be up against it compared to the other bikes on test which had Fox 36/Lyrik and Eagle gearing. The fork did hold it back slightly once in 145mm travel, hence we’ve bolted some Ohlins 36 up front but these Shimano Deore brakes and SLX cranks have been totally faultless.

VERDICT

Is it simply the speed of the Murmur that we love? Not entirely. I love the feeling of a crisp, stiff carbon bike on climbs and fast singletrack and there’s certainly a value in that, and can appreciate that the lighter, stiffer, stronger claims by many companies are true. I even think carbon is visually stronger on a bicycle.

What I’m not totally sold on is that all companies have got the mix right with carbon (or indeed aluminium), and for all the talk of the material having the endless capability of being manipulated to give the right flex/stiffness, largely this has just been talk. And don’t for one minute tell me that its faster everywhere because it’s not.

But of most importance here is that it’s not all about the material but the whole design process, maybe one day someone might well make a carbon bike that feels like this Starling Murmur. But Joe McEwan has certainly broken the code on this one.

There are many characteristics to this bike that stand out. The quality of construction, made to order geometry and price are two important ones but they’d count for little if not matched with performance. Whilst geometry should not be taken lightly or indeed copied – each bike operates in a different manner to the next – there seems to be some consistency amongst some of our favourite rides this year, and the Bermuda triangle between head tube area/bottom bracket/font tyre contact where many get lost has been navigated well.

The Murmur delivers balance. It works with the rider rather than against it, sucking up some punches where other bikes transfer it to the rider. There is a definite sense that you can push the Murmur faster and harder and certainly a perception (when compared to the carbon and aluminium bikes on test) that your speed might not be quite as fast due to the edgy ride that those materials produce in some frame constructions.

But even though we found it was folly to confuse emotion with speed the sensation of riding the Starling Murmur was exciting and unusual.

Since the timed runs I have discussed this bike with many people – “Yeah but has he done the stress analysis?” Or “what about the placebo effect?” And more recently “Yes but people aspire to carbon bikes.” It’s true, there are so many questions.

Un-confusing, simple, well made, unique, fun to ride, at a great price and fast. It has been totally memorable riding the Starling bikes this year. It has also taught me to be vigilant during a time when we are blitzed with information and complication. McEwan has fashioned one hell of a bullet, created a benchmark, one of the best bikes we’ve ridden this year. Performance delivered, expectation raised.

Frames from £1500

www.starlingcycles.com

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