Santa Cruz Chameleon R1 AM first ride review£1,999.00

The latest version of this classic hardtail is a category, character and wheel-size-blending beauty

The Chameleon hardtail has been a multi-mission workaholic member of the Santa Cruz line-up for decades, and the latest version is the most versatile, cultured and compelling yet.

Santa Cruz Chameleon R1 AM specs

  • Frame: Hydroformed 6000 series alloy
  • Fork: Fox Float Rhythm 34, 120mm (4.7in) travel
  • Drivetrain: SRAM NX with Race Face Aeffect cranks (1x11)
  • Wheelset: WTB STP i23 rims on Novatec Boost hubs
  • Tyres: Maxxis Minion DHF II EXO TR 29x2.3in (f) and Maxxis Crossmark II DC EXO TR 29x2.25in (r)
  • Brakes: SRAM Level T, 160mm rotors
  • Bar: Race Face Ride, 760mm
  • Stem: Race Face Ride, 50mm
  • Seatpost: Race Face Ride rigid
  • Saddle: WTB Volt Race
  • Weight: 12.89kg (28.4lb), large size without pedals

Santa Cruz Chameleon R1 AM frame and kit

Modern and traditional riders alike will find something to please them here. The seventh-generation Chameleon chassis is a totally new 6000 series aluminium construct that’s long and low enough to please more progressive riders.

The large size I tested had a 460mm reach and a 315mm bottom bracket (BB) height. Its moderately slack 67.5-degree head angle and 120 to 130mm of fork travel won’t freak out more conservative pilots, though.

The neat swinging adjustable dropouts are set up for Boost-width (148x12mm) 29erwheels on the R1 AM, but 650b+, 142x12m and singlespeed versions are also available.

The swinging dropouts can be swapped for 650b+, 142x12mm or singlespeed versions
The swinging dropouts can be swapped for 650b+, 142x12mm or singlespeed versions

An external-bearing BB and externally routed brake hose add long-term reliability and easy servicing. The frame is ported for an internal dropper post and there’s a direct mount and routing for a front mech, plus twin bottle mounts.

As well as a frame-only option (£549, 2.08kg) there are two levels of complete bike build: ‘D’ (£1,599) and ‘R1’ (£1,999). The cassettes, brakes and cranks differ, but the biggest step up on the more expensive bike is the fork.

While the ‘D’ build's RockShox Recon Silver is okay, if you can stretch to get the Fox Rhythm 34 version you’ll be blown away by its consistently-controlled but buttery-smooth performance. On both builds, you can choose to have tubeless 29x2.3in tyres on 23mm WTB rims or 27.5x 2.8in plus tyres on 40mm Race Face rims.

Santa Cruz Chameleon R1 AM first ride impressions

If you’re not overwhelmed by the complete bike value, then fair enough. You can get a full-sus with the same fork for just a few hundred pounds more. But this isn’t your average hardtail. You’ll probably realise this just after you’ve skimmed and floated your way through a patch of roots and rocks that normally rattle you silly.

After ruling out the possibility of a soft rear tyre, you’ll realise that the Chameleon just applies power really smoothly but purposefully, so it feels way more responsive and keen to go places — fast — than it should do for its weight. And when you get to the top and point it down, more good things happen.

This isn’t your average hardtail. You’ll realise this after you’ve skimmed and floated your way through roots and rocks that normally rattle you silly
This isn’t your average hardtail. You’ll realise this after you’ve skimmed and floated your way through roots and rocks that normally rattle you silly

Even in short-stroke guise, the Rhythm 34 feels like a top-dollar unit, not a fork you can’t even buy aftermarket. There’s enough muscle in the Boost stance and carefully-profiled front end that you can push it aggressively through berms or blown out, rutted corners. Head into something bigger, faster, and the short fork spec suddenly makes sense.

It can’t swallow the largest blocks and slams like a 150mm fork can, but that means you get fair warning to anticipate hits at the rear, so you stay light and mobile, floating and showboating.

While the 29er format gives you easy speed and day-long flow, switching to plus tyres fattens up your grip levels and throws your lean angles over even further. In R1+ form (available for the same price), the Chameleon flows you through slower, staccato terrain as if someone’s stuck a motor in there.

The result isn’t just a really good execution of what a contemporary trail hardtail can be, but an outstanding ride mix of balanced all-round handling with a superbly blended, steel-smooth/alloy-driven ride character. That makes it well worth the extra money over other, similar-looking hardtails.

Santa Cruz Chameleon R1 AM early verdict

Hefty and pricey, but a tough, versatile all-rounder with a smooth yet addictively rewarding ride.

This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Guy Kesteven

Freelance Writer, UK
Guy started filling his brain with cycle stats and steaming up bike shop windows back in 1980. He worked the other side of those windows from '89 while getting a degree in “describing broken things covered in mud" (archaeology). Dug historical holes in the ground through the early '90s, then became a pro bike tester in '97. Guy has ridden thousands of bikes and even more components the world over since then and can remember them all in vivid, haunting detail. Can't remember where the car keys are, though.
  • Age: 45
  • Height: 180cm / 5' 11"
  • Weight: 68kg / 150lb
  • Waist: 76cm / 30in
  • Chest: 91cm / 36in
  • Discipline: Strict sadomasochist
  • Preferred Terrain: Technical off-piste singletrack and twisted back roads. Up, down, along — so long as it's faster than the last time he did it he's happy.
  • Current Bikes: An ever changing herd of test machines from Tri bikes to fat bikes and everything in between.
  • Dream Bike: His Nicolai Helius AM custom tandem
  • Beer of Choice: Theakston's Old Peculier (not Peculiar)
  • Location: Yorkshire, UK

Related Articles

Back to top