Joe McEwan of Starling Cycles poses with a cup of tea outside his Bristol Workshop

The story behind Starling Cycles’ custom-built mountain bikes – video

Joe McEwan is a passionate bike rider and builder who gave up a career in aerospace engineering to pursue his dream full-time. We met up with him in his Bristol workshop to find out why...

Joe McEwan, founder of Starling Cycles, has been riding bikes since he was two and possesses a true passion for the sport. Technically minded, he’s always fiddled with two-wheeled machines, and spent 20 years in the aerospace industry as a stress-testing engineer. That combo put him in a great place to take his enthusiasm, knowledge and desire to create to the next level.

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A portrait photograph of Joe McEwan, the founder of Starling Cycles
Aerospace engineer turned steel bike builder- Joe McEwan. Credit: James Blackwell

We’re standing in his kitchen, and as we look out the back of his Bristol home, catching a glimpse of the workshop-cum-mancave in his garden. “I’ve always made things, it’s just what I do,” he says, brewing a cuppa. “It was logical to start trying to build my own bikes. It just takes a little bit more knowledge and equipment than other forms of tinkering.” Joe learned his craft from frame-building guru Dave Yates, and says his engineering background informs his design decisions. “Also, I’m very organised and a little bit pedantic. This helps with all the associated bollocks related to running a business.” His workshop is littered with prototypes, unfinished frames and full bikes.

mountain bike frames hanging on the wall in Starling Cycles workshop
Prototype frames, custom experiments and test mules adorn the walls of the Starling workshop. Credit: James Blackwell

“Earlier this year, I gave up my day job and started building frames full-time.” he explains. “Orders for the bikes were racking up and I reckoned I had a business model that could pay the bills and put food in the mouths of my family. The long term plan is to have a little workshop down by the river and employ a few like-minded individuals to produce a range of exciting steel frames, employing new technologies but, again, with simplicity as the driver. I’d love to keep it all in-house, to allow the quick turnaround that’s key for a small, dynamic company.”

Starling Cycles Swoop mountain bike
The Starling Cycles Swoop MK4- a 155mm travel, 27.5inch wheeled trail weapon. Credit: James Blackwell

The Swoop was Joe’s first bike and it’s now in it’s fourth iteration. Made from steel, with a sleek minimal look and 155mm of travel, it’s a perfect UK do-it-all bike that’ll serve you proud on both climbs and descents. (See our review in Issue 335). The geometry is customisable, so you can get the bike you really want. He’s since released two more bikes- a 145mm 29er called the Murmur (review in MBUK Issue 344) and a full-suss single speed play bike called the ‘Beady Little Eye’

“Whatever model it is, I want my bikes to give the best ride of any bike,” he says. “I believe that’s achieved by keeping things as simple as possible. A simple bike is easily understood, allowing the rider to think about the trail ahead. Silence is also something important to me. Finally, I want my bikes to look good – simplicity and balance of proportion are key to this, along with a small smattering of nice details.”

Starling symbols punched out of the gusset plate on a Starling Swoop mountain bike
Subtle starling birds on the gussets in in the custom paint job- the devil is in the detail. Credit: James Blackwell

Ready to Fly

  • Made from Reynolds 853/861 and Columbus Life and Zona tubing, the Swoop is a thing of beauty. Each frame is built by hand, with custom geometry – Joe will dial in the head angle, down tube length, top tube length, reach and seat angle exactly to your liking.
  • Frames cost from £1,500 and take around four months to build, so if you want one there’ll be a bit of a wait!
  • You can spec the Swoop with a shorter shock, to reduce travel to 130mm, if you fancy. Starling Cycles are also offering build kits with a spattering of great components from the likes of Fox, Shimano, Maxxis, Burgtec, X-Fusion and Funn, so you can buy a complete bike from them, rather than having to make sure you’ve got all the right bits to finish your ride off.

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