2019 Santa Cruz Chameleon Carbon
This bike is a total surprise. I really enjoyed my brief experiences with the aluminum Chameleon in 2017 so when Santa Cruz asked if I'd be interested in test writing the new edition I was all over it. Light, stiff in the right directions but strangely smooth for an aluminum frame, the potential to single speed it. It's quite legitimately a frame I would own.
Now I'm generally quite trepidatious about bike reviews. What if there's nothing interesting to say? Aside from debating personal preference and the odd obvious bomb on spec, or talking about value-for-dollar, I just don't find a lot of bikes very interesting. I had zero worries about that here.
Then I opened the box.
As the bubble wrap came away it was immediately obvious that this was a carbon frame. A really nice carbon frame. The complete bike with a GX build and, admittedly cheater weight, pedals is 12.16kg. Fair enough, that does feature carbon wheels and cranks but it's still impressive for the build.
This is the 29'er version of the higher end SE Reserve model of the Chameleon C. It actually shares a lot of parts with the lower priced S model with the addition of Santa Cruz's carbon wheels, SRAM carbon cranks, and Hope hubs and headset.
Yes, this is a 5700 USD carbon hardtail. There's also the 3800 USD 'S' level bike and, most interestingly to me, a frame only option at 1600 USD. For comparison sake, the 'S' level aluminum Chameleon is 3200 USD and it has SRAM Level brakes instead of Guides.
Sizing & GeoWith Santa Cruz having lengthened their bikes, I now find myself happily sandwiched between medium and large sizes where in years past I would always choose a large. For more aggressive technical descending I'd jump up to a 140mm fork on a large frame with a 40mm stem and bump the saddle forward. For a more Tech-C, XC, or adventure application a medium with a 60mm or even 70mm stem is perfect.
I've been riding the medium frame stock with the 50mm Aeffect R stem and Race Face bar and it's comfortable thanks to the relatively long effective top tube compared to Reach. There is a potential handling issue with going to a longer stem as Santa Cruz has gone with a trendy 44mm fork offset despite the Chameleon's relatively short Reach number.
The geo chart sits in a more conservative realm but there are two points to consider. First, Santa Cruz is building a bike that can be used for XC racing, bike packing, single speed adventures, and ripping singletrack. That chameleon nature was never going to be well served by bleeding edge 62° head tube or 78°seat tube measurements.
It's also important to consider that when a hardtail is measured with the fork sagged, the reach increases and both the headtube angle and seat tube angle get steeper. Also, the seat tube angle doesn't slack out massively on steep climbs like a full suspension bike will. If you love bleeding-edge-steep seat angles this might not be the bike for you but I think the pedaling position - within the adjustable saddle range - is excellent for generating power and it's comfortable for long rides.
Tire clearance is pretty massive. Santa Cruz lists the 29'er clearance as 2.5" and 27+ clearance at 3.0". A 29x2.5" tire on a 30mm ID rim will definitely fit with the chainstays set to the full-short 415mm length. I don't have a 27x3.0" on hand to compare. With the dropouts cranked out to the full 430mm rear end length I'll be interested to see how big of a 29" tire clears - that's an experiment for another day.
One of the things I love about this Chameleon right out of the box, and I'll discuss spec a bit more below, is the upgraded wheels. I'm actually not weighing in on the Reserve rims at all at this point, you can read AJ's thorough review here, but rather the Hope hubs.
I love a quality rear hub and to me, it's an upgrade I'd take over a cockpit, rear derailleur, etc. I'd love to see the S-level Chameleon A & C bikes also rocking a hub upgrade, just with aluminum rims.
For those who prefer a faster-engaging hub, Hope sells trials internals which deliver 4.1° of engagement with an 88t setup but I haven't been able to confirm that those guts are compatible with these Boost hubs. As it sits now many riders will be perfectly happy with the okay 8.2° of float. For the custom frame-up build, Project 321 makes an awesome, and equally turquoise, hub with 1.66° of engagement.
The headset is also quite a nice looking piece with quality bearings, micro-spacers included. This is my first Hope headset experience but I suspect that along with King and Wolf Tooth it's among the best options for a drop-in.
All in all, it's cool to see Santa Cruz focusing the build dollars on a few key performance upgrades as opposed to the general rising prices raise all components one level which ends up requiring a lot more investment to notice a real difference on the trail.
Everyone's a critic. It's always easy to point to the personal preference changes I'd like to see with any bike within any price range. For example, I'd prefer to dump the questionable performance gains of carbon cranks in favour of carbon brake levers and the Reverb is far from my preferred dropper post at any price, even with the much more ergonomic Spruce Goose inspired remote, due to the after-sale cost of ownership.
The counter argument is that I'm sure many folks would choose the carbon crankset for the significant weight savings that are difficult to make up elsewhere and the Reverb is still the first name in dropper posts for a tonne of riders.
It's hard to argue with most the rest of the spec with Guide R brakes and GX Eagle being about as common as it gets these days on mountain bikes. Race Face's Aeffect R cockpit has a neutral fit that looks great without being a Gucci product that a shop won't want to take back when you want to swap in your personal favourite.
The one beef I have that transcends personal preference is Santa Cruz's choice of the Fox 34 Performance fork. Now, I know what you're thinking - what's a basic Fox Performance-level fork doing on a 5700 USD hardtail? A lot of the spec dollars on this bike are going into the frame and wheels and it's a hardtail so I wasn't expecting a World Cup or EWS level damper.
It may be a different story with speeds a rider is hitting on a new Bromad, but here a reliable workhorse fork that feels great at hardtail speeds, provides good small bump compliance, stands up in the steeps, and is easy to maintain at home would be a great choice. I'll gladly trade a few fork knobs for the Hope, or similar quality rear hub, and headset.
Unfortunately, out of the box the 34 really doesn't feel good. It appears Fox let their accountants design this fork. The from-new-performance issues seem to be entirely related to the decision to forgo arguably the biggest upgrade to Fox forks since they were introduced in 2002; SKF-made low friction seals that Fox popularized and many brands now use. That's a dollar - or more likely cents - decision.
The good news is that a basic lower service and a new pair of SKF-made, low friction seals should have this fork singing a different tune. The basic Grip damper and new Float air system both receive good reviews so it could potentially be a good fork. That is, of course, a cost that someone is going to have to cover.
If Santa Cruz wants to go totally crazy and swim outside the Rock-Fox pool, there are other great options on the market.
This is my very first time reviewing a bike that I'm glad the company in question didn't try to deliver some awesome min-maxed combination of an XTR shifter, SLX rear derailleur, and SunRace 11-50t cassette or the like. The beauty of the belly button drivetrain is that the universe does not need any more ink being spilled on GX Eagle.
That means I can pull off the pie-plate and mini-trencher and ride the Chameleon in its obvious natural state. I had a premonition this day would come, so months back I asked Uncle Lou at Obsession: Bikes to order me a Problem Solvers Zinger for just such an occasion. No faffing about with different freehubs required.
In my weight weenie past I owned some seriously light single speeds from Niner and Trek (Gary Fisher) but compared to the geometry on the Chameleon they were basically gravel bikes. This thing will hit a similar weight to those XC rigs while sporting a slacker head tube angle than a Honzo. The range of seated positions is also awesome for dialing the right posture to push a big gear up the trail and spin like an idiot on flat pavement.
I love the Paragon Rockers on my personal bike, but when it comes to carbon fibre frames, Santa Cruz easily has the nicest system on the market.* I'll play with gearing to hit a ratio I like that also stretches the Chameleon closer to its long chainstay setting of 430mm. For those who like to run things as short as possible, the combination of tire clearance and 415mm stays is impressive from a carbon machine.
*In all fairness Trek makes a solid effort with their Stranglehold system but the Chameleon is next level.
Santa Cruz has a long history of equipping bikes with WTB saddles and WTB has a long history of making some of my go-to thrones. Unfortunately, the Silverado that comes stock on the Chameleon is not one of them. Saddles, like grips, are one of those personal preference items I half expect to change with any bike but it did leave me looking back to when most of SC's bikes came stock with the very neutral fitting Pure V.
Other than putting on my much loved WTB Koda saddle (review pending) and a set of modified Crankbrothers Eggbeater pedals I've been riding the bike bone stock. I'm already willing to say it's the pre-eminent example of the do-anything carbon hardtail (sorry Honzo) but I'm not able to hail its ride compared to the aluminum Chameleon at this point.
Did I mention its impressivly light?
If I was selling mountain bikes worldwide I would most certainly rip-off (riff-off?) the Chameleon's shoes. The 2.3" Ardent Race rear and DHF front are fast-enough rolling with good climbing and braking traction. Actually, I think when it comes to the braking and cornering performance of the DHF the 2.3" may be the best size and that's coming from someone who generally prefers more rubber volume.
As usual, the Guide brakes feel a bit underpowered even once bedded-in. I normally run 180mm front rotors on my hardtails* but it's a quick and easy job to bump the Guide up to a 200mm and for my 185lbs that's probably prudent.
My standing position is a touch cramped with the 50mm stem but I can still say that the Chameleon climbs great seated or standing and it descends confidently even with the fork not functioning to my expectations - something I'll work on. A 60mm stem is in my future which should give me a better descending without compromising handling when climbing.
I have some big rides planned for the Chameleon before it goes back. Obviously, it's going to go up smooth single track like a horny duck toller but how's the relative all day descending? The aluminum Chameleon is impressive for, well, aluminum even with the lower volume 2.3" tires.
I'm a couple rides in, but I've already concluded that if I was looking for a new carbon race/ride hardtail the Chameleon would be it. It looks great, the geometry is good, it honours my preference for a threaded BB if not a press-in headset, the dropouts are awesome, the tire clearance is good, it's adaptable between 29" and 27+, and the fit is good. At 5'9" I would have a hard time choosing medium vs. large but there will always be some frame size overlap based on preference.
The next step is to swap some parts, remove some cogs, fix the fork, and beat myself up for a few months to get a comparative picture of how good the carbon Chameleon C SE can be - and to see if I can pull off a full review of this bike without a cheeky Culture Club reference.
For more on the 1600 USD Chameleon C frame, 3800 USD Chameleon C S, and this 5700 USD Chameleon C SE Reserve please check out Santa Cruz Bicycles.