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Starling Cycles’ Future Innovations & the Challenges of UK Manufacturing | Interview

starling cycles brazed front triangles interview with joe mcewan founder future innovations
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Starling Cycles is a UK manufacturer of steel mountain bikes, most well known for their aesthetically-pleasing executions of the humble single-pivot suspension platform. The brand has come a fair way since its fledgling garden shed setup in 2015. At the moment, Joe has seven current production frames to his name. The front triangles of most of these frames are fabricated in-house, at their Bristol workshop. Meanwhile, the majority of the swingarms are manufactured in Taiwan.

The Swoop 27.5″, the Twist Mixed-Wheel, the Murmur 29″, and the recent MegaMurmur trail and enduro bikes form Starling’s “core” lineup. But, they also manufacture some rather more “rare” models. These include the wildly fun Roost Hardtail, the Beady Little Eye (a 90mm travel mixed-wheel single-speed), and the Murmur Stainless. They also offer a custom frame building service for anyone after something special.

But, Joe is something of a tinkerer, and is seemingly always working away on special projects. Some of them he labels “exercises in R&D”. Others are simply so niche that a limited production run is the only viable option. Superb examples of the latter include the Spur – a high-pivot 170mm travel gearbox-equipped enduro bike – and the Sturn – a single-speed high-pivot downhill bike with a Jack Shaft drivetrain arrangement.

Earlier this year, we stopped by the Starling Cycles HQ in Bristol, to find out what founder Joe McEwan has brewing for the company’s future.

All photos from Bikerumor, unless otherwise stated

joe mcewan interview starling cycles workshop steel bike manufacturing future mtb geometry technology
Joe McEwan outside his new workshop in Bristol, England, with a one-of-a-kind Stainless Starling Twist mixed-wheel enduro bike

Interview | Joe McEwan on What’s to Come for Starling Cycles

Bikerumor: This year, you launched the V3 Murmur, Twist and Swoop frames. During their development, did you ever consider moving away from the single-pivot suspension platform and if so, for what reasons?

Starling Cycles: I love single pivot! With modern coil shocks it rides as good as multi-links, if not better in many cases! I would like to have a vertical shock sitting close to the seat tube: for aesthetics, commonality in manufacture between sizes and more frame space. But I can’t see how to achieve this elegantly without a linkage, so it’s a compromise too far!

Bikerumor: You have dabbled in the use of gearboxes, specifically with an Effigear unit on the Spur – a bike you say is the best descender you’ve ever made. Do you think the gearbox mountain bike will ever make it into the mainstream, and do intend to bring a gearbox-dedicated frame to production?

Starling Cycles: The Spur gearbox bike we made was amazing. The suspension performance and silence made it the most amazing descending bike I’ve ever ridden. But, there is a little bit of drag which means it is best suited to a more gravity orientated bike. I don’t think meshing gears at low revs will ever be as efficient as a chain, someone more knowledgeable on drivetrain systems can agree or disagree, no doubt.

starling spur 29er steel high pivot gearbox mountain bike 170mm travel
The Starling Spur is a 170mm travel high-pivot enduro bike with a 9-speed EffiGEAR gearbox. Credit: Starling Cycles.

We had some production issue with Effigear, mostly due to Covid supply chains, but it seems they are on top of it now, so we may be offering the Spur again sometime soon!

In terms of the gearbox, in house we now have a design and are manufacturing a prototype 2 speed box, primarily intended to trial the technology.  Subsequent versions will have four gears.

starling cycles demo rail hq bristol
Starling Cycles has a fleet of demo bikes at the Bristol HQ. They are free to demo if you are picking up and dropping off in Bristol. A postal demo service is also available at a cost of £100.

Bikerumor: In your workshop, there is a steel eBike hanging from the demo bike rail. Will we be see a Starling Cycles eMTB in the not-too-distant future? If so, can you give us any info on how it will materialize?

Starling Cycles: The steel ebike never really worked out. It’s pretty tricky to accomodate the complex shapes needed for motors and batteries and suspension in steel. But, I think as motor and battery technology allows for more compact systems, I might be able to do a Starling ebike and still keep the elegant design I value so much!

freeflow starling jack drive prototype emtb
Starling Cycles’ prototype eMTB with high-pivot jack-shaft layout and a prototype strain wave motor from FreeFlow technologies. Credit: Pete Scullion.

But, there is also the counter point that Starlings definitely don’t look like ebikes. Whereas, with many fat tubed carbon bikes it’s tricky to tell. So, if you are at the top of a hill on a Starling, everyone knows you pedaled it up to the top!

But, I’m also working on a parallel project under a new brand to develop a pretty special ebike, so keep your eyes open for that one….

starling braided theromplastic emtb frame prototype starling workshop tour
This braided thermoplastic frame designed in collaboration with the National Composites Centre was an exercise in R&D. The aim? To develop a new high volume, low cost, high-quality manufacturing process for carbon fiber bike frames that is less environmentally damaging than current methods.

Bikerumor: Last year, you teased a carbon eMTB with braided, thermoplastic tubes, developed in collaboration with the National Composites Center. Can you give us an update on that project?

Starling Cycles: This project is moving ahead, but slowly. That’s all I can say!

Starling MegaMurmur 165mm all-UK-steel enduro bike at theMoor brewery
The Starling MegaMurmur is Joe’s most recent creation that has made it to production. This 165mm travel steel 29er is made entirely in the UK… more details on that, here. Credit: Starling Cycles.

Bikerumor: Mountain Bike geometry has come a long way in the last 5 years; do you think we have reached the pinnacle of the long, low and slack geometry trend, or do you feel there is more to be gained from pushing this further?

Starling Cycles: Mountain bike geometry has changed, and we have a better understanding of what is required for different types of riding. The long, low, slack suits rough high speed terrain, but maybe at the expense of some pop and maneuverability. Personally, the more I think about it, the more I think we need to think about how we ride and what geometry suits our needs, rather than just thinking making it as long as possible is best. There’s an ergonomic aspect too.

2023 starling swoop 275 v3 trail enduro mtb
The V3 Starling Swoop, Twist and Murmur actually have a higher BB than their predecessors “to add a little more clearance and a little more maneuverability to a very stable geometry”. Credit: Starling Cycles.

So to try and condense my thinking: Longer stays add maneuverability, shorter stays add pop and maneuverability. You need to pick the compromise to suit your riding style.

Taller riders need bigger bikes, bigger bikes need longer stays to balance out the bike. And, the reverse for shorter riders. Longer travel bikes add grip and bump eating at the expense of pedalling and pop. Shorter travel bikes provide a firmer platform for better pedalling and pop, at the expense of grip and bump eating. You need to pick the compromise to suit your riding style.

starling roost mullet hardtail review stainless steel frame golfy scotland
Only the Starling Roost hardtail (reviewed here) benefits from size-specific chainstay lengths; 425mm on the small, 430mm on the medium, and 435mm on the large. Credit: Blair Kemp. However, the range of full suspension bikes does offer up chainstay lengths of 435mm (Swoop/Twist), 445mm (Murmur), and 455mm (MegaMurmur).

Wheels/tyres have a massive impact on how bikes ride. Heavy wheels and tough tyres for grip and control, the weight actually keeps them stable in the rough, but they are harder to pedal. Light wheels and fast rolling tyres for pedalling speed on smooth terrain and fast climbing, but they are terrible in rough terrain. You need to pick the compromise to suit your riding style.

My main thought is that nothing is the golden ticket, you always need to pick where you want your compromise to sit. Although, marketing tries to tell you otherwise, it’s just not true! I try to provide a range of bikes that allows you to pick the compromise you want with minimum hassle!

starling cycles carbon fiber mold thermoplastic prototype emtb

Bikerumor: Do you have any predictions for where mountain bike technology is headed in the next 10 years, and how will Starling Cycles be a part of that?

Starling Cycles: I have a bit of a conflict on this. I’m an engineer and I love technology and improving performance. But, we’re biking for fun, even with racing we’re mostly doing it for fun, and we had as much fun on bikes from 20 years ago as we do now.

I think the incremental gains we see now are driven more by marketing and the need for change than any actual greater enjoyment for the sport. I suppose the fact they don’t break as much anymore is a positive. But other than that, we’d have as much fun on a Klunker. I think the emergence of gravel is partly driven by this.

So, I think the trend for the future is less technology and more engaging riding on stock Klunkers with ‘standards’ that are real standards!

Bikerumor: What are the major challenges faced by the small to medium size bicycle manufacturers in Britain today?

Starling Cycles: Being a British Manufacturer is not easy. Without getting too political, manufacturing is just not valued in the UK. The people making money, with minimum risk, are estate agents (don’t get me started), lawyers, solicitors, finance, marketing people. They add nothing, but take everything. Whereas in the EU and many other places it is understood that manufacturing is key to a strong economy and it is respected. Engineers are respected, not just seen as weird geeks.

British manufacturing is also devalued, particularly with bikes, by companies claiming their products are UK manufactured, but in fact they are only assembled here from parts made elsewhere. We get our swingarms made in Taiwan, but are very transparent about it, other companies are much less transparent…

We need to be proud of what we can do here and shout about it. There’s lots of great UK brands doing exciting things with manufacturing in the UK; Starling, Atherton Bikes, Stanton, Moulton, Brompton and many more. The rest of the world take pride in supporting their local brands. UK manufacturing was killed in the 80s with crap cars, so nobody buys British anymore! So, we will struggle on. Sorry, that did get a bit political.

starling cycles front triangles waiting further fabrication addition of gussets swingarm
UK-made Starling front triangles waiting to meet their Taiwanese swingarms made by ORA. The beauty of any steel frame is that, should it crack or dent in any scenario, it is often repairable. You know what happens to carbon frames that crack… Starling have detailed information on frame warranty, and the repairs they are able to carry out in house, on their website.

If you were to order a frame today, you’d wait somewhere between 8-16 weeks for delivery. Starling are working hard to increase their UK production capacity through training a third frame builder to join the team, hoping to bring lead time down to around 4 weeks.

starlingcycles.com

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Deputy Dawg
Deputy Dawg
6 months ago

These bikes appeal on so many levels. Hard for the ex-xcm geek to wrap my head around a 78 STA, but probably awesome for the “winch and plummet” crowd.

Glad business seems to be on fire, in a good way. Always rooting for the little guy!

hmstuna
hmstuna
6 months ago

Glad the spur might be coming back. Truly a unique bike.

Yo Eddie
Yo Eddie
6 months ago

Joe rules. The bike industry needs more people like this.

Ashok Captain
Ashok Captain
6 months ago

Super article…and the gent seems extremely sorted and devoid of any of the blarney that one (mostly) reads about bike technology. Here’s wishing the enterprise all the very best. Cheers.

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