Back in late 2018, I took delivery of a quirky steel full-suspension bike to review from a small framebuilding operation in the UK called Starling Cycles. Over the course of a few months, I rode the shit out of it in Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, and couldn’t get enough of it. As someone who lives metal bikes and loves riding trails, I hadn’t fully migrated to a full suspension chassis because I didn’t like the way the widely-available carbon models rode. The Murmur changed that for me. I reviewed the Murmur in April 2019 and immediately bought a V2 Murmur.
Now living in Santa Fe, with arguably more technical terrain, I haven’t been able to put down the Starling Cycles Murmur; taking it high into the Sangre Mountains and beyond, this steel full-suspension bike really changed my perspective on the potential ride quality of full-suspension mountain bikes. Late last year, Joe from Starling reached out, saying he had a V3 frame for me to test out, and once again, I’ve been reaching for it nonstop.
Let’s look at my thoughts on the small changes the V3 underwent, leading to large improvements, and a broader perspective on steel full-suspension bikes below…
Murmur In: Versions
The Murmur is Starling Cycles’ “modern trail/enduro” 29er that can be built with a 140-160mm front fork and 135-150mm rear shock. I’m reviewing the size XL in 160/135 configuration here, as a 6’2″ 190lb human with very long legs and arms. The build featured here weighs 35lbs on the nose.
In a relatively short period, the Murmur has undergone many changes, most notably depending on where the front triangle was fabricated. This is evidence of Joe and the Starling Cycles team’s relentless pursuit of producing the best bike frames–check out his interview at Pinkbike for an in-depth read. Here’s a rough breakdown:
- V1 frames were built by Joe in the UK with UK swingarms and used a 12mm stainless main pivot axle.
- V2 used a UK-made front triangle with Taiwanese swingarms with bearings in cups fitted into the main frame.
- V3 is a new version. The front triangle is UK-made with Reynolds 853 tubing and the rear swingarm is made in Taiwan, with the cast main pivot bearing in the rear swingarm.
The V3 also features a revised gusset shape at the head tube and the all-new stainless shock mount is soldered directly to the downtube. An aluminum insert in the seat tube stops seatpost binding due to galvanic corrosion. This is also typical for custom and production-built frames to standardize seat post diameters. Think of it as a permanent shim to bring the Murmur to a 31.6⌀ seatpost that also keeps the post from getting corroded in the steel seat tube.
I was content with my V2 Murmur and repeatedly said it was “all the bike I need,” but Joe laid out some changes that made the V3 sound even better…
The V3 Murmur underwent a few geometry tweaks, including steepening the seat angle by a full degree steeper (78°) and a raising the bottom bracket to come in at a -34mm drop (both metrics are unsagged). This solved one slight nitpick from the V2, as I’d found it prone to striking on pedaly-flat-ish rocky terrain. And, these adjustments made climbing steep singletrack all the easier.
What’s interesting about the V3 is how you can now run two different shocks on it thanks to the new downtube shock mount:
- 135mm shock for short travel
- 150mm shock for long travel
I liked how the 140mm felt on my V2 Murmur, so I opted for the short travel version. This also helps with how pedalable the bike is across town riding to the trails and how well it climbs. More on that later.
While Starling offers complete build kits, I built my V3 from the ground up, swapping over some parts from my V2 (that is now owned by Andy Karr!) while also incorporating some flashy new bits. I tried to keep the build clean by including several silver components to subtly offset the paint.
Perhaps the components that receive the most attention on this build are the Industry Nine Enduro300 wheelset with silver hubs and spokes. These just came out last April, and I’ve put them through the rock wringer here in Santa Fe since receiving them to review. Now hear me out. Wheel reviews are tough and usually contingent upon three main qualities: maintenance, tubeless setup, and ride quality. Industry Nine makes exceptional wheels, and I’ve never had a nay nitpick, but I was not prepared for how much these wheels impressed me.
For starters, the inner width of 30mm makes for a nice and wide tire profile, giving the 2.6″ Kessel tires exceptional bite in loose corners. This proved to be especially true on the rear, which I usually run at 15psi with a tire insert. The E300 wheels utilize a hollow bead wall, which helps with pinch flats and overall wheel strength. When the wheels came in, I was juggling a lot with work, so I didn’t pay much attention to the material of the rims.
The V3 Murmur, like the V2 Murmur clears an aggressive 29×2.6″ tire, as all trail bikes should!
After a few rides, I kept saying to myself how good they felt and how Industry Nine finally nailed the carbon layup on its wheels. Well… these are aluminum rims, and to be honest, they ride much smoother than any carbon wheel I’ve tried out over the past several months, even when comparing them to the CSS Composites rims that Chris King and Revel use. These might be the wheels that convince me to sell off my carbon hoops…
They’ve held up quite well with a Tannus insert in the rear and just sealant in the front. I’ll run around 15 psi in the rear and 18 in the front.
At this point, I feel like all brake reviews are hyper-personal, subject to several regionally-specific parameters and individual ergonomic preferences. For instance, some brakes I’ve found require constant bleeding, and I’ve been told that has to do with living at 7000′ and frequently traveling around to higher and lower elevations. I don’t know how well that claim holds up, but after test riding several review bikes and finding the brakes need near-constant bleeding, I’ll say I’m starting to believe it.
The only brakes I’ve had a good run with here in Santa Fe are the Magura brakes–I can hear some of you closing your laptops now–but I now have them on two bikes and cannot get enough of their modulation, reliability, and stopping power. On my Moots Womble I have the MT Trail Sport and liked them so much that I sprung for the MT7 HC3 brakes for the Murmur via my local shop, Sincere Cycles.
The adjustability of the arms and dual-piston (4 brake pads) rear caliper delivers the most solid, consistent, and smooth performance to ever land under my sweaty palms. I love how easy it is to dial in the lever position with a few simple twists of a trail tool. Ergonomics, power, and relatively low maintenance have put these high on my list of all-time favorites.
My only note is that when the rear pads begin to wear too much, the pistons are hard to align, so you must stay on top of replacing your pads when needed or else your rotors will kiss the calipers.
Going from the V2 to the V3, I made a pretty significant change to the cockpit by going shorter and wider: I swapped out a 35mm stem to a 50mm and replaced the 800mm bar with an 840mm, vis-a-vis the Mountain Goat titanium bullmoose I bought from First Flight Bikes. I wanted to be stretched out a little more since I’m between an XL and XXL in terms of reach numbers, and I opted for more bar width to make descending feel more in-control. I have a 46″ chest and wide shoulders with long arms, so I’m constantly fiddling with bar width and sweep profile with my trail bikes. Right now, these bars really hit the nail on the head in terms of all-day comfort and control. I was also getting wrist and hand fatigue from the 35mm clamp ENVE bars, so the titanium bar helped with that, too.
Last but not least…
Another big update my V2 Murmur underwent was the suspension components, which I transferred to the V3 build. RockShox sent over the new–at the time–Super Deluxe rear shock and Lyrik 160mm fork. Much like the new Pike that’s now on my Womble, I cannot get enough of the new Lyrik. The new and improved mid-stroke Charger 3 damper is by far the most notable improvement for the Murmur compared to the previous setup, a Fox 36 Float.
Initially, I wasn’t into the color contrast of the olive drab with the mint frame color but it’s growing on me…
The Charger 3 relies upon an internal floating piston which is similar in design to RockShox rear shocks, utilizing a spring to build up back pressure, and when combined with a new high and low-speed damping circuit, the Debonair+ spring and “ButterCups”–or small pucks in the base of the damper–create an incredibly plush ride quality that isn’t afraid of the chunky stuff. Seriously, this fork, while it took me a bit to dial in compared to the 140mm Pike on my Womble, is by far the smoothest feeling 160mm fork I’ve ridden.
As for the rear shock, the RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate, you can get lost in the adjustments’ fine-tunability. Between the 15 clicks of rebound adjustment and the high/low-speed compression adjustments (which have five speeds), dialing in the perfect feel is a one-and-done job. However, the new Hydraulic Bottom Out feature is remarkable, which protects the last 20% of the shock’s stroke from those unexpected drops or big jumps. This feature is not adjustable and typically only came on super high-end shocks before making its way on the Super Deluxe Ultimate as an optional add-on.
What I love about these modern offerings from RockShox is you can set them up once for your home terrain and not have to touch them again. I tend to ride similar terrain when I travel; primitive, chunky, steep trails, so the adjustments I made here at home usually apply on the road. Suspension tuning isn’t my strong suit, and I tend not to want to geek out about those things, which is probably why I like the simplicity of the single-pivot suspension design…
Riding the Murmur
Growing up skateboarding and surfing, we would talk a lot about “snap” and “pop,” both of which can apply to steel bikes. It doesn’t matter if you have a steel road, gravel, hardtail, or rigid MTB, a properly engineered steel frame is going to “dance” with you when you apply force to it. Unlike carbon models, which are marketed as being stiff for power transfer, a steel bike is all about smoothing out the ride quality.
This applies to full suspension bikes even moreso, I’d argue, as there are more moving parts to tune, and with the simple linkage design found in single-pivot bikes, these moments of tunability are much easier to discern in ride quality and characteristics. I can wax poetic all day about the ride characteristics of steel over carbon, but I’ve found steel excels in two moments specifically: rock gardens and cornering; two of my joys while descending.
With a big, stiff carbon bike, when you hit a rock garden, the bike wants to get all chattery as it reverberates across the terrain in an attempt to hold its line, relying on tire pressure and suspension settings to “soften” the ride. On a steel bike, the frame itself smooths out rocky trails and flexes as you adjust your weight to this uneven terrain. Tire pressure and suspension settings just add to this experience. It’s a big reason why I feel like steel full suspensions ride so uniquely.
People often grab the bike and step on one pedal, pushing into the bottom bracket, before commenting on how much the frame flexes. My question to them is “why is that a bad thing?” When you’re out of the saddle, charging, your force is being applied vertically on the pedals more than on the side, so you’re not losing power or momentum from some light swaying of the bottom bracket shell.
However, when you side-load the bike into and out of turns, this flexibility allows you to snap the bike around with predictable results. My favorite thing to do on the Murmur is a left-hand jump on a local trail that lands you into a sharp, left-hook turn. Hitting the jump just right snaps you into a spring-loading position just before you fire out of the landing in the corner like a catapult. Part of this is the tubing spec; Reynolds 853 is a great, well-rounded tubeset. And the other part is the tubing diameters, particularly the downtube, which Starling specs as a 38.1mm diameter. Even just a gentle turn with a delayed “snap” of the rear end is a truly unique ride quality. This allows for the frame to move under my weight in a way that I’ve never felt on a carbon bike.
The only other steel full suspension bike I’ve ridden that rides similarly to the Murmur is the Chromag Darco, which also specs a 38.1mm diameter downtube from seamless CroMo tubing. The REEB SST specs a 44.5mm downtube, resulting in a much stiffer bike. So if you’re not into flex, the SST might be your best choice for a steel bike. Both the Darco and SST also weigh 35 lbs as I reviewed them in a size XL.
If I rode a lot of bike parks, I’d probably want a bigger downtube for stability at high speeds, and any potential trail impacts at those high speeds, but on our primitive trails, the smaller diameter tube lend a light, lively and responsive ride quality. It’s one of those sensations you must try for yourself. What I will say is if you’re into a stiff bike that rides on rails, you’re probably going to prefer a carbon bike over a more flexy ride that dances with you on descents.
Yet, as well as the Murmur descends, it climbs even better…
The number one reason I’ll often take my hardtail out in lieu of my full suspension is climbing. If I’m doing a big, long ride in our mountains, having a rear shock and five extra pounds on the build can quickly tire me out. Plus, only having one water bottle on the Murmur is kind of a bummer if I don’t want to ride with a pack. However, with the V3’s geometry tweaks–mainly the 1º steeper seat tube and slightly higher BB–climbing got a bit easier. Now, when I hit a steep section of trail, I’ll scooch forward even more on the saddle, and dig in deeper. The bike practically walks itself up steep switchbacks and tight turns.
This is another reason I wanted a longer stem on this build: so I had more room to move forward. The closer you are to being over the bottom bracket shell, the more efficient each pedal stroke is, and the closer you are to the front of the bike, resulting in better rear traction as well. If you get too far forward–like you do when you’re out of the saddle–you can lose weight on the rear wheel and spin out.
A nice, steep seat angle keeps you planted in the saddle, brings you closer to the front wheel/bottom bracket, and allows for more comfortable climbing. The V3 tweaks have resulted in me taking the “big bike” out on longer rides moreso than any other springtime here in the Southern Rockies.
Some people say a steep seat angle is an ass-hatchet on traversing terrain, but remember, you’ve got a rear shock to smooth that out too. I will agree that steeper seat angles on hardtails can be kind of brutal though…
K.I.S.S. = Keep it simple, stupid. Single pivot suspension design, when engineered correctly, is not only easier to maintain (it takes 10 minutes to swap bearings on the Murmur) but, when paired with modern suspension, can be just as tunable as more complex suspension setups found on more popular carbon models. One of the main benefits of a steel frame is the frame itself absorbs much of the trail chatter, so the suspension just acts as a smoothing agent to an already buttery ride.
This new Murmur just proves that with the right kinetic engineering, proper geometry, and tube selection, a steel full suspension bike can offer the same, if not better, performance and ride quality as a carbon bike. The way Joe and his team have set up this simple single-pivot design, there is little to no effect on the suspension from hard braking (anti-rise), yet with the new geometry tweaks, the Mumur climbs even better than before and still holds its own on descents.
If you want a big, 160/135mm bike that pedals like an XC counterpart and aren’t concerned with weight (my XL built as shown comes in at 35 lbs on the nose), then the Murmur might be up your alley for all-mountain exploits.
- Engineering to flex while maintaining strength for rough riding.
- Beautiful lines and details.
- Multiple rear shock travel and fork travel options.
- 29×2.6″ clearance.
- US distribution makes ordering a Starling more affordable (details below).
- Beautiful colors.
- Steel will last a lifetime.
- Not feeling beaten up or sore after long descents.
- Not as light as carbon but still competitive in weight compared to similar travel aluminum and carbon bikes.
- Having to explain to people on the trail that no, this isn’t a 1990s bike. This has happened to me multiple times on the trail!
- Frame: Starling Murmur XL
- Fork: RockShox Lyric
- Handlebars: Mountain Goat Bullmoose Ti 50mm extension, 840mm width
- Headset: Chris King
- Brakes: Magura MT7 HC3
- Shifter: SRAM GX
- Derailleur: SRAM XX1
- Cassette: SRAM XX1
- Cranks: Cane Creek eeWings
- Chainring: eThirteen 28t
- Wheels: Industry Nine Enduro
- Pedals: LOOK Enduro Limited Brown
- Dropper: Fox Transfer 200mm
- Saddle: WTB Silverado
- Grips: Ergon
- Tires: Teravail Kessel Tough Casing 29×2.6″
If you’re Starling curious and live in the USA, Trail Labs is the brand’s US distro. I wanted to thank Joe and James at Starling for being super supportive of what we do at The Radavist. Got questions or a Starling of your own? Drop them in the comments!