January 29, 2019

By Jonathan Fey

If you're lucky enough to have a fatbike, go out and ride in this weather because the rest of us are stuck inside. Come back to this article later. Same, too if you’ve been skiing. The rest of us are in the snow-ice-thaw cycle of seasonal bike depression. My mountain bike hasn't seen dirt in (at least) a month, when I rode 12 miles at Buena Vista’s surprising Midland trail network on Christmas Day.

So you may find yourself like me, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and stoking the stoke fire for the spring and summer riding seasons. If you scrolled around a little bit in the last couple days, you might have seen Santa Cruz drop the carbon-frame Chameleon into the world. There's even a promo video with Santa Cruz employees singing and dancing a la Culture Club, because well, bike industry. The long standing aluminum do-everything hardtail got a haircut, but doesn't appear to have lost any of the fun, dirty, workhorse marrow in its bones.

But it sure looks like it’ll shake your bones less than the aluminum one. I've been riding the aluminum version of this bike in the mid-tier R build and 29 inch wheels as my only mountain bike for the last four months, and it's been a great bike for me, even in the aluminum spec. Why you want the carbon bike is the same reason you want the aluminum bike, but you’re also interested in shaving some weight and a little smoother ride. This is not to say the aluminum bike rides harsh. Here are my notes on that one.

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m more at home on groomed, moderately technical single track than in the hairier stuff. More Buffalo Creek than Dakota Ridge. More Mary’s Loop than Horsethief Bench. Even still, I don't mind pushing the bike toward its limit a little in that kind of medium technical terrain. Last fall I was coming off a long road season with some death-march style rides, so I was looking to do more fun riding. I raced a little ‘cross, I rode the mountain bike. November was unseasonably warm, as we’re growing accustomed to here on the Front Range, so I took the bike up to Buffalo Creek for my shakedown rides.

Here's what I noticed about Chameleon in that kind of terrain. I’d forgotten that hardtails are, in fact, faster, when the trail is smooth. I came close to beating my best time up Nice Kitty, without killing myself, aerobically speaking. You gotta keep the pedals turning, but if you shift your weight around and stand when you need to, the bike stays stuck to the ground surprisingly well. I traded the stock Maxxis Crossmark on the rear for a 2.3-inch Specialized Butcher with Control casing (more on that later), which seemed to help with uphill traction.

The bike has a 73.3 degree head tube angle, so uphill handling characteristics are understandably a hair more vague than the garden variety cross-country hardtail. (If you like your mountain bike to handle like a road bike, Santa Cruz makes a bike called the Highball). It takes some adjustment in riding position to keep the front wheel down in really steep stuff. If you’ve been riding modern full suspension trail bikes, this won’t be an issue for you. The uphill handling feels a little more neutral than a full suspension bike with the same head angle, as when rolling through rocky or technical uphill sections, sometimes sagging into the suspension will exacerbate the slackness of the front end. While not extremely short, Chameleon’s 415mm chainstays contribute to the accidental wheelie, but also aid in the bike’s precise steering through tight, twisty terrain. I went in blind on a 1.4 mile trail called Django as part of a loop in Buena Vista’s Midland trail network. The mix of winding, sandy single track through piñon juniper and tricky, pedally rock gardens with ledgy drops had me making quick line corrections. The bike pivoted when it needed to and, rode up and over roots and ledges. I was out of my element. The bike, certainly, was not.

If, however, you’d prefer the bike a little more stable at speed, or to accommodate the biggest tires you can cram in there, or if you’re pining after a bikepacking trip, or or or (you see where I’m going), then you can use the bike’s modular dropouts to lengthen the chainstay to 430mm. The 27.5 plus build kit comes in this particular setup. I find myself wanting to put a 2.5-inch tire in between the stays, so I may do this down the road.

A note on maneuverability: one disappointment in the build kit is the freehub body’s lack of points of engagement when punching through slowish technical terrain. Those tight, tricky trails require a level of precision in laying down power to the rear wheel that is lacking with the SRAM MTH 746 hub on the R build kit. The aluminum S build will put riders on a superior DT370 hub, which, while not inexpensive to do, can be upgraded with DT’s Star Ratchet system and 54t ratchet ring upgrade.

The rest of the build kit is really pretty good, though not light. My complete with large frame comes in at 30 lbs with pedals and a bottle cage, which is like, well, full suspension territory. The Minion DHF tire up front in 2.3-inch isn’t particularly light, but I’m pleased with its traction. Dropper seatpost because, duh. The only problem with the SRAM NX drivetrain is that it would be a hassle to replace the cassette with a lighter GX or XO cassette. The NX cassette sits on a standard HG freehub body instead of the XD driver. I’m a fairly light rider at 140lbs so I’m not necessarily pushing the fork or the brakes to their max, but I haven’t noticed deficiencies in either. The reason I’m okay with the weight of the bike is, well, it tackles a whole range of trails that are better suited to a full suspension bike. Of course, you could always throw money at the weight problem, too. The Carbon S build comes in a hair over 26 lbs, and your bank account will be missing $3,799.  If you really want to ball out there’s an SE build with carbon hoops and Hope hubs and a Hope headset at $5,699.

Here’s the thing, though. This bike, even in the heavier build, is really, really fun. Trails that are simple on a big, burly trail bike become more challenging; they require more technical precision and decision making. Its 73.3 degree head angle makes the bike feel so stable going fast down stuff, but you can’t go into every rock garden super hot. The bike rewards staying light on the pedals and being smart about where you put your wheels. I’ve found myself being a little more careful with where the rear tire is tracking; I cased the rim on a few tricky little roots and rocks before I was totally familiar with the bike. I’ve also been toying with the idea of running a much burlier casing rear tire to prevent this from happening. The bike is certainly making me a smarter and better rider, though, and I’m riding things I wouldn’t have thought I could on a hardtail.

For a lot of riders, this would be a fun second bike. Still, I don’t think it has to play second fiddle to a dedicated trail rig, depending on the type of riding you do. If, like me, you’d rather spend three to five hours at Buffalo Creek than a quick up and down at Apex, this could be the ticket. The slack and stable geometry means you’re not totally out of your element on the burlier terrain. Also, if you like the idea of one bike, many configurations, this is totally up your alley. Triple water bottle bosses on the downtube and two sets of standard bosses in the triangle mean you could load this bike up for an overnight bikepacking trip on a mix of singletrack and fire roads. If you like the simplicity of singlespeed, well yep, you’re covered there too. Like the cushion of 27.5 plus, but the simplicity of a hardtail? This bike is that. Whether the aluminum or carbon version of this bike is the one for you might have more to do with whether this is your one bike. This bike has such a huge range of applications you might just be able to make this your go-to.


The ever-adaptable lizard has ascended the evolutionary ladder and finally has a carbon model in its family tree! Meet the all-new carbon Chameleon hardtail from Santa Cruz.