First Impressions from Tom Buck...
When I was first looking at buying a new frame my thoughts were shaped by a few key requirements. I wanted a bike with modern "long, low, slack" geometry but that didn't look like a gate. I wanted something that could climb well enough to get me up the hills I wanted to hoon down. I've ridden longish travel forks for the last 5 or 6 years so wanted something that let me keep the travel I was used to but I wanted a bike that was designed around them instead of being "optimised around 140mm". Now I can't claim to know in depth why I wanted these things but they helped shape my choices. I'd narrowed my selection down to a Specialised Enduro, a Bird Aeris and a Turner RFX or Burner. And then I saw a Facebook post about Starling. Here was a bike that (in my opinion) looked better than anything else I had seen and in principle was similar to all the other bikes I'd been looking at. And it was steel - and I've got really fond memories of riding a Marin Pine Mountain in the early 90s. I've also got memories of an early 2000s Orange P7 that was heavy and stiff but I try and block those out.
So - potential downsides were that the rear triangle looked thin and flexy. The bike might be heavy and stiff. It was a single-pivot, so there could be lots of pedal-bob and/or brake-jack. It was still a prototype, there was no real-world experience and it was just a man in a shed doing all the work, so there might be minimal customer service. I could see quite a few downsides - but it still looked amazing and more to the point, no-one else would have one! Fortunately Joe had the ear of Steve Jones from Dirt and Ben Plenge from WideOpenMag. Their views and reviews, and some open conversations with Joe, convinced me that the Swoop was worth my money so a deposit went down just before Christmas 2015. Another review from Dirt came out in January and the beauty of buying a prototype became clear as the review highlighted one issue, and allowed Joe to make a minor modification to my frame to remedy this.
I had decided to take Joe up on the options to source the shock, build kit and wheels. Sadly Funn couldn't fulfil the order on the wheels and Joe was let down on the Storia shock but on both occasions he was able to supply a replacement at a good price, and he even went so far as to lend me a shock until the replacement arrived. The customer service and response to emails around all of the build process was fantastic and Starling were great to deal with.
I took delivery of the frame and kit in early March and got my LBS to source the rest of build (forks, dropper, brakes and drivetrain). I've now ridden local trail centres, Bike Park Wales and a week in Madeira and I'm really pleased with how things have turned out. Local trails were ridden with confidence - the climbs didn't feel draggy, the descents were fast and I immediately got a few Strava PBs on both ups and downs. It may just have been "new bike" syndrome but first impressions were good. I then spent a few rides sussing out suspension settings with a view to getting ready for a week in Madeira.
Madeira was interesting - steep, rocky, slippy and technical. It was a test of the bike and of my lack of skills and the bike won. There was nothing it couldn't handle and got me out of a few tight spots when I'd misjudged the steepness or speed. Bike Park Wales was a good test of how the bike performed and the chance to repeat runs allowed me to really push myself and the bike.
Firstly, it's quick. Not sure how to really describe it but the acceleration when you let it off the brakes is great. There is a little bit of a "whip" from the stays when you put the power on and it's a testament to the design that there's enough flex to feel the steel but to also be confident in corners and in chicanes. The suspension doesn't seem to need a platform shock but I'm running an X-Fusion Vector coil with speed-sensitive high and low speed compression and rebound damping. It also has volume and pressure adjustment of the internal piggyback which allows the bottom-out pressure to be adjusted. I've not really played too much with this now I've got it set up but I think that over time I'll have the confidence to fettle it a bit more and see how much better it can get. The bike doesn't seem to bob a lot even on the single-pivot / coil combination so I'm happy on both climbs and descents. The air version will probably give as good a feel for less weight - but I prefer the look of the coil (shallow, I know)
There is a bit of brake jack but no more than any other frame I've ridden (including Horst & DW link bikes) and I quite like a little bit of that stiff skippy feeling in corners. The Funn bars and stem are incredibly stiff - I went for the 810mm Fatboy Supreme 35mm bars with the 35mm long Funnduro stem and now I've got used to the width, you really notice how stiff the front end is. The Fox 36s go where you point them and I've left myself 30mm of spacers under the stem to give myself something to play with. I did swap out the Funn grips as they were a little thin and transmitted a lot of vibration but they'd be ok on some narrower 31.8mm carbon bars.
In hindsight I might have gone slightly longer and higher in the front triangle with the bike and I may move to a 45mm stem but for now the riding position seems pretty sorted - again, thanks to Joe for the overall design based on my limited requirements.
I suppose some might suggest that I'm giving a glowing review because it's a niche bike and there aren't many about and I'll be honest - that was originally why I went for the bike in the first place. But I've now ridden it and I love it. It feels like a nice steel bike but with over 6" of travel that actually is allowed to work. There is no wallowing, no feeling of being chucked about and it goes where you want it to go - fast! It is responsive, it gives good feedback and most of all, I think it looks amazing. I've had lots of attention on the trail and one of the Madeiran guides summed it up with his look of surprise and a yell of "look at that iron bike".
In my opinion Joe has built something special here - it rides and handles well and for a British-built frame it's not massively expensive, particularly when you take advantage of the options that Joe can deliver on build kit. Hopefully I'll see a few more of these out on the trails now.