There’s something really special about handmade mountain bikes. They’re not cookie-cut by a faceless robots in a far away factory. They’re made with love, sweat and a welding torch by a human in a workshop that they’ve pieced together. No disrespect to the big brands – they’re great – but there’s something unique about a bike where every weld has been painstakingly put together by hand.
It doesn’t get any more homegrown than made in Bristol, Starling Cycles. Starling’s Joe lives in Bristol with his family. He works in the aerospace industry and in his back garden is a shed. In that shed he welds together his dream bikes with what time and money he can afford. There’s no online sales or a marketing department or corporate investment or even a website. It’s just Joe doing what he loves on his own terms.
When Joe invited us to have a ride on his handmade mountain bike – his working title is the Starling Swoop – we jumped at the chance. We’ve seen him racing it at the UK Gravity Enduro and zipping quietly past us on our local trails. Time to see whether the Starling Cycles Swoop rides as well as it looks!
Exclusivity. Something different. A unique experience.
There are plenty of riders out there who are after something a bit different to the norm. Many people, in the pursuit of ‘exclusivity’ will drop £7000 on the latest group-test-winner with a set of carbon hoops on it, thinking that the expense will lead to them having something special or aspirational. Whilst they will certainly end up with a very good bike, they won’t have anything remotely special or unique, because these days those bikes are everywhere.
Just go to Swinley, Surrey Hills or an enduro race and you will see that there is nothing exclusive about a baby blue Nomad, even if Ratboy has one! If you want something truly special you will need to think outside the box…
“eccentric British engineering and fueled by milky tea and late nights in the shed”
What we have here with the Starling Swoop, is something truly unique. It is handmade, in the best traditions of slightly eccentric British engineering and fueled by milky tea and late nights in the shed.
The bike I rode was the Mk 2 version with 150mm of travel from its steel tubed frame, suspended on a Fox Float X, with a Pike up front. I had the bike for a weekend, taking it for a chilled out spin on some local Bristol trails before hitting Cwmcarn for a couple of laps on the Sunday. As I only had it for a couple of days I wasn’t able to do a full blown bike test.
It is more about first impressions and the general feel of the bike. Joe doesn’t have a fleet of test bikes, the bike you see here is his own bike. If I’m riding it, he’s not, so we kept the loan short!
“it will come in about the 30lb mark with some harder hitting rubber fitted.”
The first thing you notice is that it is bang on trend for a modern 150mm bike with a decent length top tube, relatively slack head angle, with a stubby stem and massive, 780mm tree-punching bars fitted. Without pedals, it weighed in at 29 lbs although it did have light tyres, so it is fair to say it will come in about the 30lb mark with some harder hitting rubber fitted. On this Mk 2 version there was also a lot of flex in the back end.
It was immediately apparent when bouncing around the carpark and at first it had me feeling a bit sceptical. After all, we keep on being told how we need everything to be stiffer; right? Well, maybe not, as you’ll see!
The Cwmcarn ride always starts with a bit of a lung-busting climb from the carpark, with plenty of steep kicks where you have to get out of the saddle. This was the first surprise, as it climbed really well, hooking up well with the shock in ‘Trail’ mode and not bobbing around too much. The single-pivot design really keeps the rear end supple which is perfect for technical climbing duties.
Dropping into the first sections of downhill singletrack, it felt balanced and planted and performed as well as any good quality modern bike should. At first I was worried about the rear end flex that I had felt in the carpark, but the reality was a lively and engaging ride with good levels of grip from the active rear end. After a couple of DH sections I felt confident to push the bike harder, leaning it in, boosting lips and just having a great time.
Starling frames are made from a combination of Columns Zona and Spirit tubing – equivalent to Reynolds 853. There’s a true temper Superthem BMX downtube with 4130 and mild steel turned and laser cut parts.
We all know about the lively characteristics of a steel hardtail that some people are so fond of, but could that feel come through with 150mm of travel? Well, I think the answer is, yes! I am not sure how, but the Starling certainly felt lively and in a very good way.
This was confirmed when my mate, Joe Finney (Elite enduro racer for NS Bikes) took the bike for a spin. Joe is no slouch on a bike and was able to push it really hard. The result was surprising. According to his Strava he was just as quick on the Starling on his first ride as he was on his enduro race bike that he had been riding and racing all summer. When I say quick, I mean top-10 Strava quick on the rough Cwmcarn descents!
“this bike gets a lot of attention at the trails.”
So, it is fair to say that I was impressed. The bike was not perfect, but I am assured that the Mk 3 version that was at the powder coaters would have better rear end stiffness, tyre clearance and an even longer, slacker design. Joe, the designer/builder has also raced his bikes at the Enduro World Series in Scotland this year as well as at the Grizedale and Dyfi rounds of UK Gravity Enduro, showing that these frames can take some proper punishment.
The final thing to add is that this bike gets a lot of attention at the trails. If you don’t like talking to strangers, then don’t get a Starling! Loads of people will randomly start talking to you about it! Usually along the lines of, “Is that steel?” “What is it?” “Looks cool, you say he built it in his shed?!”. Get used to it!
If you want your own handmade bike, built in Bristol by a human being called Joe then give him a shout. He’s taking orders now and can build you a custom frame to your specification. If you want a truly unique and exclusive bike … Starling Cycles could be a great shout.