A Cat Amongst The Starlings

When we last looked at the Starling, we left with a degree of calmness and excitement, with only an ounce of intrepidation of the decisions to come. Well, although that was a problem for the future self, the future self has become the self and it was time to start choosing numbers and builds for the Murmur.

Initially, the build kit was fairly set (we’ll come back to this later!) with a mix of Rockshox, Hope, and SRAM along with a touch of Raceface for posterity. Next was the job of choosing the geometry. One of the advantages of custom built bikes is the degree of customisation with the frame itself, and this isn’t limited to just speccing ISCG mounts, or boost spacing, but actually picking some key figures for the bike, namely the seatpost height, reach and head angle (let’s face it, it’s only really the last two we look at anyway!)

Although Joe at Starling can provide a baseline, it’s down to the customer to lay down the final numbers for mitering. Rather than approaching this with blind abandon, a day well spent testing the latest and greatest long travel 29er’s at Cannock Chase’s Leisure Lakes Demo Day; on the bill, Trek’s new Slash, the Yeti SB5.5, Specialized’s venerable Enduro 29er and as time permitted, the Mojo Nicolai Geometron.

After a brief consultation with the numbers, I realised quickly there was no point in testing any of the above in my standard size-medium, after test-riding a friend’s XL Yeti SB6 and realising that although I could almost taste the saddle it was so high, the reach actually felt very reasonable. With all the bikes featuring a reach of around 440-460mm, this at least gave a baseline to start with, and a range of head angles between an almost XC 66.5 to a downright chopper-like 65.6 degree head angle.

Of course each bike had their merits, and all felt pretty damn fantastic, even on terrain derived for more sedate steeds, with each carving corners and chewing through rock gardens with a monster truck-like hunger.  Although all performed very admirably, the Trek Slash stood out over the rest, sitting at the longer/slacker end of the scale, discounting the somewhat ridiculous (although tame by their standards) geomtron. It, like other hyper-slack rides gave a somewhat flip-flop feel to the steering that although some may look for, still felt strange to a relative novice like myself, not instilling the confidence I’d have looked for in such a ground-breaking geometry.

Following this, I’d agreed to meet Joe at the Forest of Dean for an early-morning ride around his extremely packed schedule (he’s got bikes to build don’t you know!). His weapon of choice was his rather extreme Swoop with its 490mm reach and 62.5 degree head, a little extreme for me but it certainly wasn’t slowing him down. My ride for the morning, the journalists favourite Murmur that had recently come back from another show and tell session at a prestigious bike show.

After blasting round some of the more unknown tracks around the forest, and Joe even humouring me with a pootle round the red-run to show how the bike handled on tamer terrain, we settled at some geometry that seemed to tick all the boxes. 10mm shorter than his  stock Murmur due to my slight deficit in the height department, and a head angle of 64.5. That seems to be the optimum head angle before the bike starts to follow the aforementioned flip-flop steering sensation favoured by some members of the Starling team.

At least now, the numbers were set, and a few emails later, we were a go. And although my friends and partner have had to sustain a rigorous barrage of questions and second-guessing around the geometry, the realisation that it was of course going to feel different than my now archaic 26” Yeti 575, with an inevitable learning curve, and a LOT more speed to find out of that steel framed war horse.

Oh and a sidenote…. It actually climbed really well, especially considering it’s single-pivot founding. It’s almost like he knows what he’s doing!

So finally, after consulting the books, and looking at the total build costs, there actually wasn’t a considerable monetary saving between the bikes I’d tested at the demo day and the Starling. Had the Trek shown itself to be a cat amongst the pigeons (or Starlings would probably be more accurate); the short answer… no. What the Trek has in trail manners and advertised R&D, it lacked in “zing”. That thing that makes a bike feel special both on and off the trail. Although it had galloped over rocks and bumps with relative ease, the bike had felt a little numb – very VERY capable even capable of causing the occasional “WOO”, but didn’t quite feel special or different, something which I can assure you the Murmur has by the (monster) truck-load!

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