If you were riding bikes in the late-1990’s, you might remember the introduction of a colorful little frame from California-based Santa Cruz Bicycles called the Chameleon. It’s kind of funny to think that the kids I see on the pump track, hitting way bigger stuff than I feel good about, have never not been alive in a world that didn’t have a Santa Cruz Chameleon for them to shred on. It’s a storied frame with a long, successful history, and the most radical change has been the most recent adaptation of the frame and fork to be able to fit either 29″ or 27.5+ wheelsets, adding even more versatility. I’ve been throwing around the Chameleon 29er ‘R’ version here in the PNW since last fall and the bike has lived up to its heritage.
For comparison, you can also read our review of the Santa Cruz Chameleon C SE, to see how the carbon version stacks up.
2019 Santa Cruz Chameleon R Aluminum Features:
- 6000-series aluminum frame
- Built for 120mm travel fork
- Compatible with 29 or 27.5+ wheels
- Threaded 73mm BB
- Can accept a direct-mount front derailleur
- Internal routing for stealth dropper posts
- R version ships with a Race Face Aeffect dropper
- Geared or single speed via swappable dropouts
- Race Face Ride cockpit
- SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain
- Avid Level T brakes on centerline 180mm rotors
- Weight: 28.2 lbs as tested
- MSRP: $1799 – $2399 ($749 frame)
Riding on the lizard king
I don’t usually start off reviews with a history of the bike. This is partly because there are very few bikes with the same sort of history as the Santa Cruz Chameleon; the frame is radically different than it was when it came out (the head tube angle is about 4º slacker, for example), but it tells you something about the quality of the ride that people have been throwing down on Chameleons for over 20 years now. 2019 brought the introduction of a carbon frame, which is big news in itself and deepens the Chameleon’s attractiveness as an XC race option (their Highball is built for that), but I’ve tested the sturdy aluminum model.
The latest Chameleon has all the trappings you’d expect on a modern do-it-all hardtail. It has removable dropouts that can run 148x12mm or single speed at 142x12mm. The head angle remains at 67.5º, the bottom bracket was raised to 315mm and the chain stay was shortened to 415mm for that snap you’ve been wanting. That short chain stay is made possible due to the curving seat tube on the Chameleon, which still leaves enough straight tube for a dropper. The bottom bracket is a durable, 73mm threaded external cup which is way more robust than a cheaper press-fit design. People say Santa Cruz is overpriced, but this is a good example of the baseline ways they insure quality in their bikes. Thanks, Santa Cruz.
Other than the carbon frame option, the big new thing with the Chameleon is its ability to accept either 29″ or 27.5″ setups. For a 29er you can run tires up to 2.5″, and for the 27.5+ you can squeeze in a 3″ tire there. The versatility here is pretty obvious… you could use this as a pseudo-fat bike in moderately snowy winter riding, or you could run a tight 29er setup for XC racing. Or, if you ride rocky and muddy PNW single track, you might enjoy the added squish and traction of a soft, fat 27.5+ tire to fling mud at your back.
My Chameleon R was kitted out with the inimitable SRAM NX Eagle 1×11, which offers an incredible riding experience. There is something about these 11 and 12 speed setups that can sometimes feel almost delicate; that tiny chain, that enormous derailleur tension… to me, it does not feel as robust as the ‘olden days’ of 2×10’s and I’m no longer as confident working on my own rear derailleur when it’s as high-tech and tightly calibrated as the Eagle. That said, the actual performance is almost unbelievable. It’s easy to flick up and down through the gearing and to drop 3-4 gears at once with an effortless push of your thumb. With 30T up front and a 50T dinnerplate, this thing is geared like a Sherman Tank.
I had one really weird episode on my first ride of the Chameleon where I snapped the chain. In my decade of riding, I’ve only snapped one chain and it was when I was a teenager and pretty much set the chainring down on a rock and stomped on the pedal. When I did it on the Chameleon, it happened on a sloppy-but-not-crazy upshift. A master l ink made for a quick repair, but still. Jason has some great commentary here, and I agree with him when he says “…12-speed gearing offers tight tolerances, which SRAM has mastered. However, if you do get something (a twig or a kink in the chain) in there, weird things could happen.”
Speaking of mashing gears (which we’re all too good to ever do), the Chameleon is a great climber. Steep, technical climbs really highlight the response 415mm chainstay. Rocks and roots, often slippery or muddy, are a mainstay of PNW riding and I enjoyed the 29er’s ability to roll over crud. No doubt people riding the 27.5+ version will find a perfect complement from the oversized tires and responsive rear end.
The bike and climb and descend with surprising confidence, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect by looking at the numbers. The 67.5 head angle is moderate, and more aggressive hardtails that claim to be sendy sit as slack as 64. The fork is only 120mm of travel, too, which is generous for XC but seems slight for hitting anything bigger. In balance, though, the frame and fork give a great experience. Any taller of a fork with this head angle would push the rider’s weight too far up and back. The fairly spacious 440mm reach that is on my tested Medium helps the bike track through corners and gives you the confidence to slam through them. At the same time, the low BB gives that ‘swoop’ that you want to feel confident.
I really like how this bike is balanced. It’s surprisingly confident heading downhill and there’s nothing of that high-up feeling that used to plague 29ers. The bike has a great, snappy feeling on the downhill but also has a real sense of control. I’m 5’11” and straddle the Medium or Large frame ranges, but I opted for Medium and have enjoyed the nimble feeling of a highly responsive frame. At the same time, it’s a really confident climber thanks to the combination of the short, snappy rear end, the moderate head angle and the insanely easy gear ratio afforded by the SRAM NX drivetrain’s 50T dinner plate. You’ll also enjoy the easy manualing that your friends will notice and be jealous of, thanks to that short chainstay. The Chameleon tries to be a lot of things, and frankly it does them very well. It’s often called a one-bike quiver, and the praise is justified.
The cockpit is mostly taken care of by Race Face’s Ride components, which is totally adequate. The only component here I really care about is the WTB Silverado saddle, which I found supportive and comfortable. Stopping is taken care of by the Avid Level T brakes on 180mm centerline rotors; I really liked these brakes. They’re adequately powerful, predictable, and they come on and off smoothly.
The bike’s front squish is handled by the Fox Rhythmn 34 120mm. I have mixed feelings about this fork, but now that I’m finished with this review I’m feeling more positively about it after a long period of tinkering to get the feel just right. It’s sort of the classic issue of having adequate damping without sacrificing for brake dive and sag. I’ve found it to be predictable and stiff enough for my 200-pound weight with gear, although the rebound can feel spiky on more challenging terrain. To some extent, these may be the limitations of a mid-level fork. There are ways to upgrade this with products like Avy dampers or the FIT4 damper. Volume spacers can also make the fork more supple. The fork is more than adequate and there’s lots of opportunities to tweak it to your preference, but I would not say it’s a stand-out component on the bike.
Santa Cruz paid attention to the little things, too. Bottle mounts are available on the top and bottom of the down tube. There’s not really space with the bent seat tube and aggressively sloped top tube for a seat post mounted bottle cage. I love the stealth cable routing that Santa Cruz chose for the dropper post, and the rear brake and derailleur cables are neatly tucked beneath the top tube.
- It’s fun to ride. What more do you want?
- The Race Face Ride cockpit and Aeffect dropper make for a great experience
- SRAM NX Eagle is obviously going to be so good, and it was throughout my testing
- Bike climbs and descends with ease; I really like the short chainstays’ effect on the ride
- The customizeability of the Chameleon means that you can tinker for years
- Fox Rhythmn 34 fork is functional but somewhat lackluster
- The Chameleon can feel a little flighty on particularly technical or rocky descents
The Bottom Line: Santa Cruz Chameleon R
When you take all of these and add them together, my overall impression of the bike is that it’s a huge grin factory. Hardtails are fun for lots of reasons, and I enjoy the efficiency on climbing and the visceral way it connects you to the trail. Having to keep your balance more active is stimulating and fun for me. And it reminds me of when I started mountain biking as a teenager on a hardtail on hiking trails in Nevada. The Santa Cruz Chameleon totally puts you back in touch with what was originally fun, and what will always be fun, about riding. I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a ride-it-all bike, or to people following the N+1 rule who want to own an iconic and truly enjoyable ride.
Buy Now: Visit CompetitiveCyclist.com
The Chameleon justifies the hype. The recent upgrades to the frameset, coupled with the sheer performance of the the SRAM NX Eagle groupset and Race Face Aeffect dropper, make for a ride that's effortlessly fun.