Review: Starling Murmur custom

Andy is back with another steel FS bike review, this time of his Starling Murmur custom…

I’ve had this frame since November 2017, so it has the honour of being my longest-serving bike of the past few years (believe me, this is quite an achievement for those that know me).

I’d been a long-term convert to 29ers, and had a long, low and slack 650b Enduro bike before – but not tried a true LLS 29er.

Around this time the Starling Murmur had its ‘breakout moment’ with a gushing review by Steve Jones in Dirt Magazine – leading to a clamour of interest, including from myself.

Andy on board his steel stallion

At this time I inquired about buying a new frame, but the order queue increased overnight, so I jumped at the chance to buy a second hand custom geometry frame that seemed to fit me at 5’8”.

For those that don’t know, Starling started as a one-man band shed-build company in Bristol, who are still fairly small, but have a range of steel full-suss bikes based on simplicity (all single pivots), progressive geometry and the riding feel of steel.

When demand increased exponentially they outsourced manufacture to Taiwan (along with going with fixed geometry options), but have recently brought it back to their own UK facilities along with the return of customised geometry, alongside standard sizes.

I really love the slenderness of the steel tubes and the classic triangulated proportions, which is accentuated by the geometry. I should say, the colour scheme was not my choice, but I have grown to like it and had plenty of compliments.

I’ve toyed with a respray to a more subtle/industrial colour scheme, but the quality of the paint means this probably won’t happen.

Unfortunately for this early custom frame there is no bottle cage mount (all current frames include one now), but I did get a custom frame bag to include the bulk of my kit – so now only have to carry water.

The statistics of this frame are 64.5 head angle, 460mm reach (with 150mm forks), 410mm seat tube, 445mm chainstays and a lengthy 1250mm wheelbase. I now run 160mm forks, which kicks the head angle back to 64deg and reach to 455mm. I’m not 100 per cent sure on the seat angle, but the current frames are 77deg, so I guess this is fairly similar.

Back in late 2017 these numbers made it an outlier (with only the likes of Pole and Geometron pushing things further), but even in just a few years it has become more accepted and adopted by the bigger brands. Other frame features are:

· Full steel full suspension frame (Reynolds 853 front triangle).

· Single pivot suspension with 145mm rear travel.

· 142x12mm rear axle.

· 150-160mm front travel.

· Threaded bottom bracket.

· External cable routing.

Skinny steel tubing

Not the diet option

Even though I’ve had this frame for 2.5 years the build kit has remained fairly similar, which is weird for a tinkerer like me, especially as it’s covered 3,500km.

It runs at around 35lb with 160mm Lyriks, Hope/Stans Flow wheels, Maxxis EXO tyres, Procore inserts, 170mm Reverb dropper, Shimano XT 4 pots with 200mm rotors and a Shimano/SRAM 11 speed drivetrain. All solid, dependable gear and definitely not on a weight-watcher diet.

With the versatile 160mm front and 145mm rear travel, this bike has been used in all manner of rides and trips – from my local Rivington loops, Hebden, Peak District, through to Lakeland hike-a-bike epics and Tweed Valley techiness. So, you name the terrain, odds are this bike has ridden it.

Suspension

A key element for me in having a do-it all bike is reliable and predictable suspension, and I’ve come to conclude that a single pivot is ideal for the vast majority of UK riding I do. The Murmur single pivot has a fairly linear leverage ratio and pretty good climbing characteristics.

Although I tried a coil shock for a short time, I’ve found it suits an air shock with a decent number of tokens installed. I currently swap between a Fox Float X2 and DPX2, which are both great shocks.

The X2 is more plush and planted, and the DPX a bit better under pedalling, but not with the same smooth magic carpet feel in that initial part of the travel. Both are run with minimal compression and a light rebound tune.

Climbing

Despite the heft this bike climbs better than you might think. The chain tension gives just enough oomph and urgency with minimal bob, but without it becoming choppy on anything lumpy. I only use the climb switch on extended tarmac sections. I should say for context I am a lightweight high-cadence spinner rather than a masher on the climbs.

The seat angle and medium/long chainstays help with climbing the steeper stuff. The combo means I can stay seated when the gradient ramps up without the front end lifting.

A rather niche finding is that although the straight skinny steel tubes look lovely, it is damn uncomfortable when pressed against your neck hike-a-biking.

When doing the Lakes Four Passes last year I had a nice piece of pipe lagging to give me a bit of respite. Amusingly, people thought it was for preventing rock strikes damaging the tube on the descents. It made me feel a bit old skool.

You want a short seat tube? Step right this way sir.

Descending

I’ll kick off with an obvious one for this long, low and slack 29er – that it is very stable, but let’s unpick that for a moment. There are some great benefits to this stability in terms of egging you on to go faster, not getting you into tricky circumstances and generally monster-trucking you through situations that on other bikes could get you into trouble on.

The flip-side though, is this stability means it’s harder and needs more body-English to change direction and line as intuitively as shorter, steeper, higher bikes.

This has been good for encouraging the right technique, but doesn’t feel as agile, and dare I say ‘chuckable’ – despite it probably being faster overall.

The other element to this is in tighter, switchback situations you need to be more aware of line choice to avoid any three-point-turns. Again, this encourages you to improve your riding, but in blind trail situations, or just generally thrashing it trying to keep up with faster folk, you can get yourself into trouble that you wouldn’t on a more nimble bike.

It’s worth saying here that after many years of riding bikes that were too small for me (have a look at your old riding pictures and see for yourselves), it took me a bit of time (and still is) to adjust to riding a longer bike. Once you learn to trust and commit to getting your back flatter, elbows more bent and weight right over the front end then the confidence and speed increases.

A lot has been written in the last couple of years about compliance in frames and components and how it contributes to fatigue in riders on long or multiple descents, so I was keen to experience this for myself. I can’t say prior to riding this bike I ever felt like previous carbon or aluminium frames were too stiff, but after riding this bike I can definitely feel the compliance and feel it benefits me in a few ways.

For those that haven’t ridden a decent steel frame it’s a weird feeling to start with and you instantly notice a slight lack of directness, which feels more sluggish and slower. After a short while you get used to this and then you can turn it to your advantage, especially in lower grip situations and off-camber and rooty sections where the subtle flex gives you more grip and tracks the ground better.

I guess this is what is meant by ‘breathing with the trail’. I definitely believe there are benefits to the rear end being also made out of steel as well as the front triangle. I’ve ridden some Cotic full-suss frames and find that the aluminium rear end is stiffer, which takes away a fair amount of welcome flex as only the front triangle gives.

The combination of the compliance of the steel tubes, the LLS geometry and the simple, communicative single pivot suspension combines to make an impressively confident and fast bike on the descents.

I suspect most (if not all) of my Strava PRs are on this bike. On some single pivots I’ve experienced pedal and brake-induced feedback, but on this frame it’s pretty good and manageable which I guess is down to the pivot position and having a decent rear shock.

It’s long, it’s low and it’s slack

I will say that occasionally, and more specifically on my local trails at Rivington, when it’s dry and grippy, I would like it to be a bit twitchier and more agile, not for speed, but just to be a bit more fun, engaging and possibly catch me out every now and then.

This had led me to try a Cotic FlareMAX with slightly less travel (132mm) slightly shorter wheelbase (25mm) and steeper head angle (1 deg), which works really well, but it doesn’t have the flex or feel of the Murmur. I think this could be due to the aluminium back end, higher BB, and the suspension isn’t as compliant (most likely due to the Cane Creek inline shock not being as composed as a Fox X2).

Based on this I’d be interested to try one of the standard geometry Murmurs (10mm shorter reach and 65deg head angle) on my local loops.

Negatives

Over the 2 ½ years I’ve ridden this frame I am really struggling to think of any issues I’ve had. I’ve only changed the pivot bearings once and not had to change any shock bushings, which are normally the first things to go. If I’m being super-critical the gear cable routing round the suspension could be tidied up a bit to prevent rubbing against the frame. That’s it, really!

Summary

Being a habitual bike-swapper, biking mates are still surprised when I drag this bike out of the car regularly, which is high praise indeed. The primary reason for this monogamy is that it has always been great fun to ride, due to the confidence inspiring geometry, communicative suspension and grip inducing flex. This would be selling it short though because it’s also ridiculously fast, climbs well and is super-reliable.

As a ‘one bike to rule them all’ this is as close as I’ve ever experienced, so I’m expecting it to be a regular companion for a good while yet (my riding pals will be calling BS when they read that).

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2 thoughts on “Review: Starling Murmur custom

  • January 11, 2021 at 8:10 pm
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    Hi Andy, I’m a bit late to this but just wondered how the Murmur pedaled in comparison to the FlareMAX? And how much playfulness or pop do you lose with the Murmur?
    Thanks, Sam

    Reply
  • January 13, 2021 at 1:49 pm
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    Hi Sam,
    They weren’t massively different to be honest. I found the FlareMAX bottom bracket was higher which meant I didn’t feel quite as low down as the Starling. The FlareMAX also wasn’t as slack or long as the Murmur, so consequently wasn’t as stable when it was going fast or the grip was low. On the flip-side this meant it was more manoeuvrable, but I only got to take advantage of this when the trails were bone dry and the grip was high.
    The biggest difference was in frame flex. The Murmur definitely had more give and compliance, which is probably due to the thinner gauge tubing and steel back end (compared to the Alu chainstays on the Cotic).
    Suspension performance was fairly similar, to the extent that I wondered whether the drop-link design was really necessary. You couldn’t describe either as being playful or poppy, mainly due to the weight and feel of steel frames. As above I tended to find the feel was more dictated by the geometry rather than suspension.
    The weights we’re very similar and in the end I didn’t think the Cotic offered any significant advantages over the Starling, but the Starling had more capability to ride steeper, techier and rougher trails.
    Both very good frames/bikes though.
    Cheers,
    Andy

    Reply

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