Double Feature Review: Alex and Nikki’s Starling Swoop Steel Full Suspensions

The Swoop is Starling Cycles‘ versatile single-pivot steel full-suspension bike designed for 27.5 wheels. With its adjustable shock mounts, the Swoop can be set in “Trail” mode with 130 mm of rear travel or “Enduro” with 160 mm. Partners Alex and Nikki each have Swoops in respective enduro and trail modes that they’ve been riding for some time now. Below, they share a review of both iterations of this adaptable built-in-UK platform from one of our favorite bike makers

Bike Mumbo Jumbo

This is a review and comparison written by one person about two Starling Swoops ridden by two people. Hear me out.

My partner Nikki loves riding bikes and knows what she likes and doesn’t like, but she isn’t a giant bike nerd like me. I’ve spent years working customer service in and out of the bike industry, and in that time, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what people want, even if they aren’t able to articulate it fully. I’m up to date on new mountain bikes, geometry changes, and suspension kinematics despite planning to keep my Swoop forever. I like talking about the nuances of everything related to bikes.

Nikki is the opposite of me in that regard. She just wants a bike that rides well, looks good, and tunes out all the jargon, so it fell on me to build a bike that she would like based on her input from past bikes.

If you’re like her (then I’m not sure why you’re reading this) you can skip my ramblings and take her direct word about the bike. It climbs “normal” and “goes up rocks well,” while downhill it is “not sketchy.” And her main reason for this bike, above all others, is because “it’s cute.” I mean, look at it, it’s so cute! However, if you’re a bike nerd like me and, let’s face it, you are currently reading this, let’s jump in.

You can thank Josh for focusing most of this photoset on Nikki’s Swoop because he forgot to charge his AXS battery for the ride we planned to document on my bike. Alas. Good thing we have it well-documented from various hut-packing trips!

Starling Swoop V3 Quick Hits

  • 27.5 Wheels
  • Adjustable 130 mm or 160 mm rear travel
  • Single-pivot suspension design
  • Variable HTA (64°- 64.9°) based on size and travel
  • 78° Effective STA
  • Custom color options are available
  • Reynolds 853 Tubing (front) and Chromoly (rear)
  • Front Triangle built in Bristol, UK
  • £1990 and made to order

I just want to look at them

Modern full-suspension mountain bike aesthetics can be an acquired taste. Some are angular and pointy, some bendy and organic, and few have what one could call “classic” lines. Plenty of this comes from the need to fit bottles and suspension bits in the frame, but some of it is primarily aesthetic, like unique tubing profiles and junctions.

Bikes on either end of the size spectrum start looking even more out there. At least the size of big knobby tires, a long fork, and wide bars can compliment bigger frames (just take pictures with your 240 mm dropper down), but small and extra small frames start looking especially bendy and ill-proportioned. The top tube has to make it from the top of the same length fork to a much shorter seat tube while still affording decent standover and, simultaneously, the down tube will probably bulge out even further to fit a bottle.

Aesthetics aren’t everything, of course, but they’re still a factor. If you’re on this site, you probably like a somewhat different look than someone who frequents any of the primary mountain bike websites. Maybe you’d like something more classic, traditional, or understated compared to the modern and sometimes futuristic look of many mountain bikes.

This is where steel bikes fit in. There are still swoopy and bendy ones, but they’re more often straight-tubed and have that classic look that fewer squishy bikes have. And, if you like the different ride qualities that steel offers the only choice is which of the increasing numbers of steel full suspensions do you land on?

New bike days: Sizing and other details

A few years ago, I started looking for a replacement for my Giant Trance. Giant isn’t known for being on the cutting edge of geometry, so my two-year-old bike was already outdated and completely obsolete by mountain bike standards. I wanted something that would descend better but also last a long time.

Two years later, Nikki was in the same boat. Coming from a similarly “outdated” Juliana Furtado, she also wanted something that would descend better but still look good. The Swoop lined up for each of our next bikes for similar reasons. We both upped travel, got more progressive geometry, got the flex and durability characteristics of steel, and have some good-looking bikes.

I ended up with the older generation Swoop, which is similar to the current “enduro” model, so it’s 160 mm/170 mm with no adjustability (which I like) while she’s riding the current adjustable Swoop in “trail” mode, which is 130 mm/150 mm.

We were both riding size small bikes before and stuck with size small Swoops, too. At 5’7”, I was on the line between small and medium for my Giant and my Starling. For both bikes, I went with small bikes for the same reason that I stuck with 27.5”: maneuverability and jibbing. I can barely hop 180º on my bike as is, so I figured I’d lose some of that maneuverability on a bigger bike with bigger wheels, and everyone knows that tricks are an essential part of mountain biking.

At 5’1”, Nikki was on the line between small and extra small on her Juliana and just below Starling’s suggested 5’7”-5’2” range on the small Swoop, so the only question was whether we could fit her on the bike. With a short stem and low bars, it was no problem.

While Nikki wasn’t specific about the geometry and specs she wanted, she was clear about how the bike should look. The Swoop looked much better to her than all the trail bikes that checked just the technical boxes, so she ended up with the same frame as me. Omg, twinning!

The straight, relatively skinny tubes and single pivot give it that classic look that could be confused for a hardtail at a glance. Sticking with that classic look extended to the paint choice and components. Her Swoop is the “Pumpkin Orange” color which at the time of ordering wasn’t one of the stock offerings so I’ll just assume that she chose such a beautiful color that Starling added it as an option. This was purposefully not fact-checked. (Editor’s note: The reality is, it was based on John’s Starling Murmur – sorry, Alex!)

One of the biggest factors in choosing a bike is price, so I came to this article ready to acknowledge the price of a small-batch, partially hand-built frame. These frames go for £1,658.33 or about $2,095.74 USD and you can add on extra parts at a bit of a discount through Starling.

When purchasing, I thought I was balling out in comparison to my employee pricing on an entry-level Giant, but that price is still lower than the MSRP of the majority of carbon full-suspension frames. And if you plan on keeping the bike for as long as you can, it should have a longer life span, and maintenance will be a bit cheaper, too.

The pivot bearings are no more than $20 for the two, compared to upwards of $80 from other companies (if they don’t offer lifetime bearing replacement). Ultimately, if you’re already looking at bikes of this caliber, a Starling isn’t more cost-prohibitive than any other higher-end frame.

One bike to ride it all

The next task was choosing components. For both of us, these bikes have plenty of suspension travel, but since we pedal them all over, we built them a bit on the lighter side. They could have coil suspension and DH casing tires and tire inserts and they’d rip the bike park but pedaling all day would be a slog.

Nikki is around 100 lb, so we could go pretty lightweight with the parts without worrying too much about her breaking stuff. She rips uphill and downhill but doesn’t ride as dumb as I do, which is terrific for parts longevity. I specced more cross-country parts to keep the weight down and the pedaling and maneuverability up, but the bike still has grippy 2.4” tires and a Fox 36, so it does just fine pointed down.

The bike could get a little more pedal-ey with some faster rolling tires but it does well as an all-arounder currently. It’s about 32 pounds, which seems respectable to me.

The ultimate challenge was finding silver parts. I know this has been talked about over and over, but before I started my own search, I didn’t think about it that much. I had built a 10-speed Randonneur bike years ago with all silver bits, and that was a breeze, but this was a whole other thing. There really weren’t a ton of options with all the weight, durability, and color stipulations, which forced our hand and led to a little bit of raw’ing and polishing.

My bike was much easier. I wanted to build the smoothest bike possible and as black as possible to fly under the radar (Nikki’s catches all the attention now anyway). My Swoop was supposed to be 160 mm all around (it’s a 2020 model), but I bumped the fork up to 170 mm, because why not?

Titanium bars sit up decently high, 2.6” tires, 28-hole alloy wheels that I never really tension, so they’re real supple, and slide on ODIs for the most amount of rubber. I was still aware of weight to some extent, so my bike tips in around 35 lb, which is getting to my limit of jibbing. Whenever I start strapping bags and water to the frame, it definitely slows down its reaction time, so I think I’m at my sweet spot of durability and weight.

Riding Bikes

As stated at the top of the article, Nikki said that going uphill the bike rides “normal” and it “goes up rocks well.” Downhill is “not sketchy.” I have to agree. Unsurprisingly, a relatively long, slack bike with a healthy amount of travel and solid build kit descends well. We both had to adjust to long and slack geometry, primarily getting more weight on the front end and taking switchbacks at full lock, but the benefits are well worth it.

Fast downhills are a breeze. The bike goes where you want it to with ease and feels confident. Mine eats up chunk better than hers of course, but they still take it all in stride. There’s nothing like pumping through a rock garden and popping over a network of wet roots. Steep trails at Campus and steep rock rolls in the Southwest still look scary from the top but when you get to the bottom you realize how capable the bike is and how in control you are. They soak up all the chunky and rough corners and love flying into supportive berms and ruts and bouncing right back out.

Part of that is because of the amount of travel and build (especially mine), but I’m sure the steel frame helps. The team here at The Radavist are probably getting more flex out of their XL frames than we are on size small frames so a more flexible material is welcome. Our smaller wheels will also flex less than a bigger 29er ridden by a heavier rider, so once more a reason to look for more flex.

While this bike is the most comfortable I’ve ridden, it by no means feels like a wet noodle even when loaded down, unlike some steel rigid bikes I’ve had and loaded too heavily. They are still built to take the abuses of mountain biking after all.

On my first ride I got to the top of a climb and thought “that felt fine.” It didn’t feel like the bike was holding me back up the climb more than any other full suspension, which was a concern with a long-travel steel single-pivot. It doesn’t have an acronym for the linkage. Will it even work uphill? Much of the riding in the Bay Area is fire road climbs that we ride up at a somewhat conversational pace (though Nikki’s conversational pace is quicker than most), so the bikes kind of fall into the background there.

Having ridden single-speed for a long time, I got used to my climbing metric being “did I make it up the climb?” and this bike does that. Along the same lines, I don’t care that much about climbing efficiency and I never use my climb switch, so I’m a bad person to write about efficiency, but a great person to recommend riding an enduro bike all over the place. Nikki is more in tune with climbing so she’ll use the climb switch on smooth climbs and likes the efficiency.

I do care about technical climbing though. I like the feel of extra squish and a longer bike climbing up steps and shelves, while the rear travel and grippy tires help with the steep and loose stuff. As soon as we make it into the Sierra Nevada and the Southwest these things climb technical stuff like mountain goats.

You might need to put more effort in than a lightweight, short-travel cross-country rig on cleaner climbs but you can sit in on rougher stuff with a real squishy bike instead of fighting for traction.

As for the downsides of how the bike rides, I can’t really find any faults. Weight always seems to be the concern with a metal frame, but it isn’t that far off from enduro bikes made of aluminum or carbon. For comparison I rode a Santa Cruz Nomad CC X01 Reserve build which had all the parts you’d want on a light bike and it weighed around 32 lb.

Three pounds lighter than mine, which only has a carbon saddle, and about the same weight as Nikki’s bike with a similar amount of lightweight parts. That bike rode noticeably harsher than mine despite being similar geometry and travel, and ride quality is something that I’m not willing to sacrifice for just about any other bike attribute.

Splitting Hairs

There are a couple of quirks with the frame. Being a true single-pivot it blows through shock travel real quick. Nothing that volume spacers and some high-speed compression can’t fix, but since my Fox shock didn’t come with volume spacers, I spent a few rides adding more and more air to my shock to try and combat it.

One time, my tire hit my frame, but it was during that period when I was dialing in the travel, and I was also on a nice big case. Since I’ve gotten the shock dialed, the tire hasn’t hit the frame again, and I have a normal amount of bottom outs that are all deserved. I was able to take this knowledge to Nikki’s shock right away so I installed the volume spacers (thanks Rockshox for including them) then it was just some fine-tuning to get it perfect.

As you can see, due to the size and linkage, there is no room for a bottle cage. I was hoping that we would be able to run a tiny Fidlock bottle inside the front triangle, but not quite. Nikki’s front triangle is more spacious since her shorter shock is mounted lower and doesn’t have a piggyback reservoir, but still no dice.

Fortunately, since the down tube goes straight from the bottom bracket to the head tube, there’s plenty of ground and front tire clearance for a bottle under the down tube. It is not the cleanest (aesthetically or literally) option, but they stay well out of the way. I just wish I had asked for bottle cage bosses on mine, too!

Regarding the frame itself, one thing that irks me is the height of the chainstays and their proximity to the chain. I run a 30t ring which brings the chain right up against the chainstay and causes a good amount of chain slap. My DIY mastic tape finned chainslap guard helps but gets worn away quickly. Not a deal breaker by any means but there is a lot of contact going downhill and a 28t chainring is out of the question.

Another strange thing is the seat tubes on our frames. Not every Starling owner has encountered this, but our seat tubes are very snug on the seat post. Mine is the older, fully steel seat tube while Nikki has the current steel seat tube with an aluminum insert, but both have the same issue. I’ve tested several posts in the frames and they all take a good amount of effort to put in and take out, and all posts come out marred up.

This isn’t the end of the world, but it is a concern with a frame material that’s more notorious for oxidizing and holding onto seat posts without letting go. Fortunately, it is nothing some regular care can’t handle, and it certainly has kept me on top of maintenance.

What size you runnin’?

Sizing on the frames is pretty standard for current mountain bikes, but since we’re knowingly on either side of the spectrum there were some more considerations. Riding a small bike means more seat post extension, shorter reach, and lower bars. I like short reach so that’s good, and running the stem higher up on the steerer solved that just fine. If I want bars higher up I’ll just have to go with higher-rise bars of which there’s no shortage.

Seat post extension wasn’t an issue either, and though I have an extra 40 mm of post showing, I can’t run a longer post because at full bottom out with the seat down, the tire is millimeters from the seat. And yes, I have definitely buzzed my butt a few times despite the 27.5” wheel.

Riding a bike that’s big for you means, you guessed it, less seat post extension, longer reach, and higher bars. A just about slammed stem and no rise bars has Nikki’s grips only a little higher than her seat, and though slamming the stem moves the bars farther from the seat, she likes a bit more reach and even moved her seat farther back on the rails. The bars can’t go much lower but I feel that as we age our bars usually get higher, not lower.

Seat height wasn’t an issue either with a low-slung frame and dropper post adjustability, but the bottom of the post is so close to the frame’s dropper housing port that it takes some finessing to avoid a sharp kink in the housing. The shorter travel also keeps the wheel further from the seat and Nikki upon compression. Overall the bike doesn’t feel like it’s too big for her, it just feels like a modern long and slack bike with more travel than she had before.

Look at the frame on that thing

Tech talk aside, the bikes look normal, specifically concerning proportions. If you get on Nikki’s bike you’ll quickly realize that it doesn’t belong to a tall person, but at a glance, you wouldn’t think twice. And while the proportionals are neutral, the looks are top notch! Sure the frame color and parts selection helps, but even my bike’s basic-looking build has a clean silhouette.

People mistake them for hardtails which is a positive from an aesthetic viewpoint, and we get brownie points from all the hardtail/singlespeed lovers because they’re steel. No more getting bullied for having a full suspension! They’re unassuming enough that people are surprised to learn that mine is long travel without looking like a supercross bike.

Again, looks are just one part of the equation. Is a bike that looks good but doesn’t ride well worthwhile? Probably not unless it’s a cruiser that you don’t take very far. What if a bike hits all the tech points but is uggo? At one point I had three orange bikes and my last squishy bike had every shade of green on it, so there’s my answer. But for Nikki it would be a no-go. Clearly, the best option is to have a bike that both rides and looks the way you want it to.

For someone like Nikki who wants that classic look the Swoop is perfect. For someone like me who wants a durable, easily serviceable bike that also happens to be easy on the eyes, the Swoop is perfect. If you like oversized tubing then hell yeah, you have way more options than we did and don’t have to go boutique! And if you truly don’t care about how your bike looks at all then the world is yours. For us though the Swoop is about as good as it gets.

They look great leaned up against a tree and they disappear under us when we’re riding, just like a good bike should.


  • Simple suspension linkage with only two pivot bearings
  • External cable routing
  • Straight, low seat tube doesn’t inhibit dropper post selection
  • Solid geometry that excels on descents
  • Lots of travel
  • Smooth ride quality
  • Looks great


  • Linear leverage curve blows through suspension easily without tuning
  • Smaller chainrings cause chain slap
  • Adjustable geometry requires a new shock
  • No bottle cage on small frames
  • Attracts the gaze of bike nerds far and wide (maybe a pro)

Nikki’s V3 Starling Swoop Build Spec

  • Frame: 2023 Starling Swoop Trail size small
  • Wheels: Light Bicycle XC725 rims to Hope hubs
  • Tires: Travail Honcho 27.5” x 2.4”
  • Brakes: Hope Tech 4
  • Rotors: 180 mm Magura Storm SL2
  • Fork: Fox 36 Performance
  • Shock: Rockshox Deluxe Ultimate RCT
  • Cranks: Cane Creek eeWings
  • Pedals: DMR V12
  • Chainring: 32t Wolf Tooth
  • Chain: Shimano
  • Cassette: Shimano XT 10-51
  • Derailleur: Shimano XT
  • Shifter: Shimano SLX
  • Bars: Ritchey Classic 10D flat
  • Stem: Nukeproof Horizon 35mm extension
  • Grips: Cult Vans
  • Seat Collar: Hope
  • Seatpost: OneUp 180 mm shimmed to 160 mm
  • Seat: Form Throne RS Carbon
  • Dropper lever: Paul

Alex’s V2 Starling Swoop Build Spec

  • Frame: 2020 Starling Swoop size small
  • Wheels: Industry Nine Enduro S 1/1
  • Tires: Specialized Butcher 27.5”x2.6” rear and Maxxis Minion DHF 27.5”x2.6” front
  • Brakes: Shimano BR-M615
  • Rotors: 203mm Shimano XT
  • Fork: Fox 36 Performance
  • Shock: Fox DPX2
  • Cranks: Shimano XT
  • Pedals: DMR V12
  • Chainring: 30t Shimano XTR
  • Chain: KMC
  • Cassette: SunRace CSMX8 11-50t 11 speed
  • Derailleur: Shimano XT
  • Shifter: Shimano XT
  • Bars: Why Cycles Ti bar
  • Stem: Funn Equalizer 35mm extension
  • Grips: ODI Longneck
  • Seatpost: PNW Rainier 150 mm
  • Seat: Specialized Toupe 143 mm
  • Dropper lever: OneUp