You won't be demolishing unstable planets on the Bobbin Cycles Dark Star, but if fun and stylish urban transportation is what you need, it's a solid choice. However, a few tweaks to the spec and setup would make it a better pothole-basher and easier to live with, without diminishing its street cred.
With its steel frame, upright riding position and shiny black paint job, the Bobbin Dark Star evokes the bikes grandad rode to work at the factory, brought bang up to date with disc brakes and wide-range derailleur gears.
Its narrow handlebar and quick handling suit it for life in the modern streets. It has the agile handling you need to play dodge-the-pothole while the 56cm handlebar is wide enough for decent control but won't impede cutting through motor traffic. A pair of very nicely shaped, comfortable Duracork grips sit on the ends of the bar.
At a frankly hefty 13.9kg (30.5lb) the Dark Star's no lightweight, though, and that makes itself felt when you hit an especially steep hill or you're trying to get back up to speed from the lights. Fortunately it has a wide gear range with a very low bottom gear. You won't be dashing up any hills Chris Froome-style, but you'll get up them comfortably enough.
That weight seems to be mostly down to the frame and wheels. The frame is billed as combining high-tensile and chromoly steel, but Bobbin says the seat tube, seat stays and chainstays are chromoly; the rest, including the fork, is high-tensile steel. The wheels are built around 32mm-deep alloy rims, a design that can't be made light without spending more than the budget of a £550 bike. A bit more money in the frame and fork, and shallower rims, could knock off a chunk of weight.
Nevertheless, in the right environment the Dark Star is lots of fun. It zips engagingly through traffic, and turns almost instantly, which is handy when some gaping chasm of neglected tarmac opens up in front of you. And when you need to slam all-on because someone has unexpectedly stepped or driven into your path, the disc brakes are there to bring you quickly to a stop. It's a confidence-inspiring ride.
The Dark Star's riding position is very upright thanks to its short stem. That's good for seeing where you're going in traffic, and the pothole-spotting I was just talking about, but it gets fatiguing for anything but short trips. For longer rides you want your weight distributed fairly evenly between your bum and your hands; the Dark Star's super-upright position puts it all on your bum.
Bobbin bills the Dark Star as 'suited to distance commuting and trips out of town'. Those are situations where I definitely want a longer riding position, and not just for the comfort that comes from better weight distribution. You don't need a drop-bar full stretch but fighting a headwind in the Dark Star's bolt-upright stance is just no fun.
The standout feature of the Dark Star is the braking. The Tektro Auriga hydraulic disc brakes bring it to a halt with considerable authority. It's more common to find cable discs on bikes around this price, so the superior stopping power and lack of fuss of hydraulics is very welcome. The Aurigas have an enviable reputation for reliability, and can be inexpensively improved by fitting sintered pads when the original ones wear out.
The Bobbin Dark Star has a well-chosen set of gear ratios, with a 50/34 compact chainset driving a 12-32 8-speed cassette. That gives a wide range with a very handy low gear for lugging shopping up hill and a high gear you won't spin out unless you're descending a steep hill with a following wind, in which case I suggest you just enjoy the ride.
The Dark Star's gears are Shimano's entry-level Claris parts, with mountain bike-style trigger shifters. They're basic, but they work perfectly well. Put it like this: we'd have been very happy indeed to have 8-speed shifting that worked this well and cost this little back in mountain biking's early-90s Bronze Age.
Here's the Dark Star's gear chart:
The Dark Star needs a saddle that works better with the combination of regular clothes and its upright position than the own-brand seat it comes with. It's not that the saddle is especially bad, but a smoother shape would be better and a little more padding might help too.
There are some welcome concessions to practicality in that the bike comes with a kickstand and you can get a version with mudguards (our sample is the £550 version without them; the bike you find widely advertised for £610 has them) or fit your own. However, it lacks other things I like to see on a practical bike, such as dynamo lights, a rack and a Dutch lock, or at least the bosses for one. That extra £60 for mudguards is a bit bonkers too. You can pick up a set of SKS Longboards for £26.
More than 25 years since Dia-Compe introduced the modern threadless headset, it's puzzling to find a threaded headset and quill stem on the Dark Star. A threadless headset can be adjusted with just a 5mm Allen key, where a threaded set needs a pair of thin 32mm spanners, which most people are unlikely to just have kicking around.
Bobbin founder Tom Morris told us: "We use a quill stem and threaded headset because of the ease of adjustability."
Okay, it's fairly easy to adjust handlebar height with a quill stem, but the big practical problem is that replacement stems are harder to find than those for threadless headsets. If you want to change the stem length on your Dark Star, you're not going to walk into just any bike shop and find a replacement.
I'd also like fatter tyres. The Kenda tyres fitted are nominally 32mm wide, but they measure 30mm across and they're stiff and heavy. I'm a big fan of Schwalbe's Marathon Supremes for urban riding and countryside pootling; they roll quickly and their puncture resistance is excellent for a fast-rolling tyre. There's clearance for them in a 37mm width which would suit the Dark Star perfectly, and provide a bit of welcome cushioning.
At its heart the Dark Star is a very nice little steel-framed urban bike, with easy-to-use, wide-range gearing and the all-weather stopping power of disc brakes. It has spot-on handling for round-town riding – nippy and quick-turning – and nice touches such as rack and mudguard mounts.
But the barebones spec leaves me unsatisfied. I want a town bike to come with a full set of practical accoutrements: mudguards, rack and kickstand (preferably a centre stand) and, in a perfect world, hub dynamo lighting. And good tyres are essential; they make a huge difference to the feel of a bike.
These deficiencies really take the shine off what could be a thoroughly modern take on grandad's factory bike. It's not quite a bomb, though, so at least you won't have to try to teach it phenomenology.
[Editor's note: for those wondering WTF Stevenson is on about at the top and bottom of this review, Dark Star is a classic 1974 low-budget science fiction movie, directed by John Carpenter, who went on to make Halloween, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing.]
Likeable urban runabout let down by some poor spec choices
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Bobbin Dark Star
Size tested: 56cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
TIG-welded steel. Mostly high-tensile steel, with chromoly seat tube, seatstays and chainstays.
Frame: Cro-Mo and Hi-Ten steel
Fork: Rigid, Hi Ten steel
Headset: Chrome plated steel
Drivetrain Components: Steel/alloy, double 50/34, 170mm crank
Stem: Alloy quill stem
Grips: Brown duracork
Saddle: Bobbin vinyl saddle
Tyres: Kenda whitewall 700 x 32c
Bottom Bracket: Steel, cartridge
Front Hub: Alloy 36h
Rear Hub: Alloy 36h
Rim: Alloy 36h
Brakes: Tektro Auriga disc brakes
Wheels: 700c alloy
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Distributor Moore Large says:
"The Bobbin Dark Star cuts through the cityscape with a technical set-up suited to distance commuting and trips out of town. A great alternative to a boring old hybrid, it features a nimble steel frame, 16 gears and smooth hydraulic disc brakes.
"The Dark Star features a Cro-Mo and Hi-Ten steel frame complete with mudguard and rack mounts. With flatter bars and a wide range of gears, it'll get you up big hills, while the 700x32c tyres can tackle unruly city streets or country lanes."
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Tidy steel frame, finished in shiny black.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
The seat tube, chainstays and seatstays are chromoly steel; the rest is high-tensile steel, including the fork.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
Saddle-to-bar reach is very short, because of the short stem.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
It's ok. With a better saddle, longer stem and fatter tyres it'd be quite a bit better though.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Very lively – the Dark Star turns on the proverbial sixpence.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
The quick steering makes it very nippy in traffic, though it can be a bit of a handful if you're navigating, say, very narrow bike paths.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
The grips are very nice; the saddle needs improving.
The overall weight means it's not exactly nippy away from the lights.
Once up to speed it bombs steadily along.
The nippy handling makes it very easy to chuck into corners.
It's heavy, but the low bottom gears make climbing strightforward, even if not rapid.
Wheels and tyres
While they're not light, they are tough and should last well.
They're really very ordinary.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? On the whole, yes, but a few changes would have meant I enjoyed it a whole lot more.
Would you consider buying the bike? Not in this spec.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Not in this spec.
Use this box to explain your score
The Bobbin Dark Star is a real curate's egg. The frame's decent, and the brakes and gears are very good. But the outmoded headset and stem, indifferent saddle, bottom-of-the-range tyres and lack of practical extras really drag it down. Sort out those deficiencies and it'd be a 3.5 star bike even at another £150.
About the tester
I usually ride: Scapin Style My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, general fitness riding, mountain biking
Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.