In this day and age of high-end multi linkaged carbon dream machines sold in their masses to the drooling MTB public, it’s quite a special moment when you come across a bike literally made at home by an aeronautical engineer in Bristol, UK. The Starling Swoop has all the numbers of a modern aggressive enduro bike, and word is that it’s one hell of a bike. We were interested so got our hands on one, to see what all the fuss was about.
Unless you keep a very keen eye on the industry you are unlikely to have heard of Starling Cycles; flying under the radar each frame is hand built in a shed in Bristol. Each frame is handbuilt to order using the classic frame builders material, steel! That’s not to say they are low tech or old fashioned, each frame is meticulously built to order, using True Temper Supertherm and Aerospace 4130 tube-sets by an aerospace engineer who understands modern geometry. With a bike as unique as this, you don’t deal with some faceless marketing team, or wade through endless media blurb to find out its details, we wanted to know the full background of its creation, so we got some words from its creator, Joe McEwan. So before we get into reviewing the Starling Swoop, let’s find out more about Starling.
ENDURO: Hey Joe, What’s your background?
Joe: I am an aerospace stress engineer (and team leader) with 18 years experience in the business. I’ve also had ten years specialising in carbon composite research and development.
ENDURO: So why steel for the frame?
Joe: Firstly, steel is the easiest choice for the home builder, alloy needs heat treating, composite tooling is expensive and, having worked in aerospace, my quality expectations for composites are way higher than those produced by the bike industry. Secondly, I have always had a steel bike, my first proper MTB was a Prestige Orange P7 a few years back. I rode mostly DH and got a cheap SWD (look it up) downhill bike; the geometry was wrong but it rode great. Then I had a Dobermann Stella, which again was great, steel bikes always feel really solid and well damped.
ENDURO: How did you get to the point of building these bikes?
Joe: Firstly, I did a course with Dave Yates, where I built an 853 single speed hardtail. I then started building full suspension bikes, slowly evolving my design to where I am today.
ENDURO: How many are you currently capable of producing?
Joe: I have a full-time job so I am doing this in my hut in the evenings, it’s hard work with a young family as well. I currently allow three months for a batch of five frames, however, I am speaking to a few other frame builders to help increase my production rate. The dream is to make it a full-time job, but this depends on how much money I can make out of it; aerospace pays well! Oh and whether there is enough demand for the frames, I need to sell 50-100 per year to make a living.
ENDURO: So with you making each bike to order is there room for custom geometry?
Joe: All frames are custom sized, people can choose the head angle, reach, seat tube length, and fork length, I am also offering a head-tube gusset option too. I sell frames, but also, the shocks and Funn componentry build kits.
ENDURO: What are pricing and options?
Joe: The prototypes have been sold for € 1290 (£ 1000) for a powder coated frame with a limited warranty. But I am now increasing the price to € 1940 (£ 1500) which will include a fuller one year’s warranty (details to be finalised). Shocks are competitive prices € 485 (£ 375) for the Storia, similar for Cane Creek, which I can also supply. I am also working with a local wheel builder, RyanBuildsWheels, who can provide custom wheelsets at competitive prices.
ENDURO: Why the Stendec Storia shock on this one?
Joe: Stendec’s Dave Garland has been happy to supply them to me, they ride great and people seem to like them. I, however, have a Fox Float X on my bike, which suits me. The Float X provides a bit more compression than the Storia, it also ramps up more giving it increased ‘pop’. The Stendec Storia, on the other hand, provides great grip and control with the feeling of more time to respond; different strokes for different folks! The leverage ratio of the frame is pretty much constant and linear, 2.6:1 (ish). Dave Garland loves the linear stroke and says the Storia’s damping should control compression flow.
ENDURO: Why 150mm fork and not 160?
Joe: Fork length is an option, tell me what you want and I’ll build the frame to fit. The 150mm on the test bike is because that’s what I had.
ENDURO: What would you as the designer say is the biggest strong point of this bike and who (what type of rider) would you say it suits?
Joe: To me, the benefits of the frame are the strength and longevity offered by a steel frame, the springy lively feeling and silence, the simplicity and great aesthetics. As the frame is custom geometry, it suits everyone!
Specification of the Starling Swoop
As Joe says, he is a frame builder and sells this primarily as a frame-only option, but he does also offer the option of the Funn componentry. So up in the cockpit we have their Black Ace 780mm alloy bars and nice short 40mm stem, to go with this the bike came shod with the reliable 2015 XT brakes and Zee 1×10 gearing, some climbs may get tough! Funn saddle sits atop of a 150mm stealth routed Reverb dropper. The front bounce is taken care of by a set of 150mm Pikes, with the rear sporting the very rare and hyped Stendec Storia Italian coil shock offering a matching 150mm rear travel. Funn carbon cranks have the chain kept in place with Joe’s own version of an integrated chain guide. Maxxis Shorty (front) and Minnion (rear) provide the grip, fitted tubeless to Funn’s Fantom wheelset 142x12mm.
Geometry of the Starling Swoop
The Starling frame is avialable in custom geometry, the bike we tested had a 65 degree head angle, 760 mm down tube, 340 mm seat tube, 430 mm chainstays, a -10 mm bottom bracket drop and 480 mm reach. This added up to a wheelbase of 1232 mm and a weight of 13.6 kg.
Riding the Starling Cycle Swoop
Immediately upon throwing a leg over the Starling Swoop and having a car park spin there were a couple of noticeable things. The frame feels long and low and the very linear feel of the Stendec Storia shock gives it the sensitive feeling of a DH bike. With it’s 1232 mm wheelbase and single pivot, the Starling is certainly in the newer school of geometry. With no climb switch on the shock and a linear suspension action we expected it to feel like a bit of a dog up the hills but to our surprise the only thing that made things a bit of a struggle on the climbs was the lack of gearing. Pedal bob was surprisingly un-noticeable which we can only put down to the neutral pivot position located in line with the bottom bracket to create good anti-squat.
Turning and maneuverability on flat and uphill tight corners seemed no problem for this long rig, just turn in, face your exit and you are quickly on your way to the next part of the trail. When it comes to grip, with the neutral body position between the wheels, bike’s length and the use of the mega-sensitive Storia shock and decent Maxxis rubber the grip is fantastic.
Things were going pretty well so we fired this thing down some of the UK’s toughest terrain at Crychan Forest and everything stepped up a notch! Starling claim that the bike is quiet but our rider described it as the quietest (non DH) bike he has ever ridden. With the shock’s small and large bump sensitivity keeping this thing grounded so well, the faster the Starling Swoop is ridden the more it rewards the rider with traction and speed. There is, however, one downside to the extra grip and ground suction of the Stendec Storia coil shock; it has zero pop! Come to a section where you want to huck over a gap or ping from one side to another and the suspension just seems to suck up any efforts of getting it to manually become airborne, this we put directly down to the choice of shock and is the price to pay for such incredible traction.
We would love to try the Starling Swoop with an air shock, with the incredible bump soaking capabilities of the steel frame and the long geometry, the extra ‘pop’ from the air shock would make this an amazing weapon. It’s quiet, fast and handles like a dream. What Joe has created, in what realistically can be described as his shed, is a real credit to his ability as an engineer, especially when you look closely at the detail of the welds and build quality. The only real thing we thought let this bike down was the lack of rear tyre clearance and the naff looking graphics, but these are both soon to be changed with the MK4 he is currently working on. Also, the Stendec Storia shock had some weird little knock, similar to when your top hat bushes are worn, this apparently is how they are meant to feel and doesn’t noticeably affect performance. With a choice of shock and geometry, we really think he is right in saying this bike would suit anyone. With the choice of shock and geometry, we really think he is right in saying the Starling Swoop would suit anyone, but the big question remains, what if he suddenly gets inundated with orders, could he cope?
For more information check out the Starling Bikes website.
Words: Jim Buchanan Photos: Isac Paddock