As the name suggests, Santa Cruz’s Chameleon has always been a super versatile bike. Light enough to race, tough enough to properly hammer and it generally copes with singlespeed or geared setups with some sort of wheel-related adjustment.
This latest, seventh edition expands that signature versatility by adding dual wheel size compatibility for plush plus or swift 29er options. But is it a jack of all trades or a master of none?
Santa Cruz Chameleon 7 R1 29 frame
The seatpost is curved at the base to allow short 415–430mm chainstays, but still has a long enough straight section to drop the saddle a useful amount. It’s also ported for an internal dropper which pops out of the base of the seat tube then disappears into the down tube Mick Kirkman / Immediate Media
At £549 / $749 alone the welterweight 2.08kg / 4.6lb (claimed) Chameleon frameset is pricey for an alloy frame, but there’s a ton of detailing to justify it. The short tapered head tube allows low bar height for racier riders but plenty of top tube and down tube overlap along an extended seam keep steering obedient.
The straight, flat rectangular down tube allows both up and under bottle cage mounts so you won’t go thirsty even if you’re running a frame bag for bike packing. The seatpost is curved at the base to allow short 415–430mm chainstays but still has a long enough straight section to drop the saddle a useful amount.
It’s also ported for an internal dropper which pops out of the base of the seat tube then disappears into the down tube.
There’s a direct front mech mount at the base too, with internal cable routing for Shimano’s latest Side Swing design. While putting the second bottle mount under the down tube rather than the seat tube isn’t ideal if you ride in crappy conditions it lets Santa Cruz use a seriously dropped down tube for a lowered centre of gravity and better standover clearance.
Santa Cruz has always prided itself on keeping its bikes practical and using proven standards too. In this case the threaded, 73mm width, external cup bottom bracket is a welcome bearing durability booster compared to a production-line friendly but potentially fast wearing press fit bearing system.
Whatever dropouts you choose they can be adjusted fore and aft by 15mm to micro adjust chain tension and/or your chosen chainstay length Mick Kirkman / Immediate Media
The really clever stuff happens between the seat tube and the rear wheel though. As product designer Josh Kissner says: “There aren’t a lot of tricks available for making a hardtail ride pleasantly, but we did everything we could while still remaining stiff in the ways you want it to be — and strong, of course.”
This includes super wide, curved chainstay head sections to give clearance for 27.5×3.0in or 29×2.5in tyres. The driveside section tapers in thickness to make it stronger at the base where there’s more chainring clearance.
Combined with the slightly dropped, rubber armoured chainstay, it creates room for chain, chainring and crank arm without compromising strength and stiffness. Meanwhile the non-driveside of the chainstay yoke is beefier top to bottom with an additional reinforcing ridge to take advantage of fewer space constraints on that side.
The seventh generation Chameleon is also the first ever Santa Cruz hardtail not to use a wishbone seatstay, instead extending the slim seatstays all the way up to the buttress reinforced top tube/seat tube area.
At the far end of the bike you can fit five different dropout options: 148x12mm Boost dropouts in both 29er and 8mm higher axle 27.5in Plus versions, and then the same wheel offerings but without a gear hanger for singlespeed use, and in 142x12mm width (because there are very few 148mm singlespeed hubs).
Whatever dropouts you choose they can be adjusted fore and aft by 15mm to micro adjust chain tension and/or your chosen chainstay length.
Santa Cruz Chameleon 7 R1 29 kit
As well as frame-only, the Chameleon is available in two spec levels: D (£1,699 / $1,699) and R in either 29in or 27.5in format.
I tested the pricier R 29 version, which comes with a SRAM NX drivetrain, with RaceFace Aeffect 30t crank. SRAM Level T brakes bring the bike to a halt, while RaceFace’s Ride line provides most of the cockpit.
The bike rolls on Novatec hubs built in to WTB i23 rims, with a Maxxis Minion DHF 2.3in and Crossmark II 2.25in pair of tyres.
Most importantly the R gets its 120mm of front suspension from the excellent Fox 34 Rhythm GRIP fork rather than a RockShox Recon Silver fork found on the cheaper D model.
The Rhythm also gets upgraded with the latest larger negative chamber EVOL spring tech for a more sensitive ride in 2018. That does mean you might need to add some spacers to bump up progression and I’d go higher than recommended start pressures too.
The bike comes with a Race Face Aeffect dropper post as standard in 125 or 150mm drop lengths depending on the size of the bike, currently proving a reliable option.
Santa Cruz Chameleon 7 R1 29 ride impressions
At this point some people will already be thinking that 120mm is not much travel for a current aggro trail hardtail and they’d be right. The majority of have-a-go hardtails are now running 130–150mm forks depending on wheel size.
67.5 degrees certainly isn’t a radical head angle either considering we’ve ridden production hardtails rocking a 64 already this season.
While the frame is strong enough, the 73-degree seat angle doesn’t give much scope to add a longer fork without shifting seated weight too far back and throwing the handling out of sync, either.
The new Chameleon is an addictively enjoyable all rounder that’s both kneepad rowdy but race plate fast Mick Kirkman / Immediate Media
Actually ride the Chameleon, though, and worries about middle of the road rather than radical numbers soon vanish as you appreciate the fantastic balance that makes it every bit as versatile in ride potential as it is in wheel choice.
For a start, the long 460mm reach of the size large immediately sets up a front end that wants to be pushed hard as possible through corners. The 315mm bottom bracket keeps weight low and stable while you’re doing it and the short rear end acts as a traction fuse, so it’s always the back end that’ll break away when you take the tyres too far.
That translates to a lot of time slapping corners as hard as possible to get the roost flying, and while it feels precise and clean carving in 29er format it’s a proper dirt Dyson in terms of ground grip with low pressure Plus tyres in.
While I’ve not ridden the Chameleon with them on, the switch to WTB ‘Light Carcass’ tyres means you’ll need to take a little more care through sharp rocky sections than you would with Maxxis tyres at the same pressure. The float and grip from the soft compound 3.0in Rangers is generally excellent though.
Santa Cruz has done a great job of creating a chassis that shrugs shock
That short back end also makes it a bike that “#lovesbackwheel”, popping the front wheel up easily and holding it high with a distinctive extra element of sustain that turns necessary manuals into showboating big grin style.
It’s not such a slack and stumpy stemmed set up that it’ll wander and wave around as soon as you try and charge it uphill, though. That lets you make full use of an impressively buoyant and driven frame feel that properly surges forward whenever you press the pedals — particularly in 29er format.
Whatever control inputs you’re putting in are translated accurately and obediently through the muscular feeling tube set, Boost angled ends, well made wheels and quality tyres.
The Fox 34 Rhythm fork is an absolutely outstanding damper for the money, too, with a consistently smooth, high traction yet progressively supportive suspension action that you can totally trust in seriously sketchy high-speed situations.
The Chameleon’s short tapered head tube allows low bar height for racier riders but plenty of top tube and down tube overlap along an extended seam keeps steering obedient Mick Kirkman / Immediate Media
Counterintuitively, the harder and faster you go the more Santa Cruz’s deliberate decision to back step on supplied fork travel makes sense. Time and again when we’ve tested long travel hardtails the impacts that the fork can take in its stride brutally slam speed out of the back wheel, crushing our toes into the front of our shoes, killing flow and throwing geometry and body weight completely off balance.
As all the suspension is concentrated at the front end any dive effect of hard braking or corner compression is doubly accentuated, which is very obvious with less expensive, less consistent forks you’re likely to get in bikes around this price.
However, with less travel there’s much less disparity between how each end of the bike reacts. That means you instinctively prepare to protect the back wheel by hopping, popping or riding light in the split second after sensing the impact through the fork rather than suddenly feeling like someone put a shovel handle through your rear wheel spokes.
Even if you run out of duck and weave to keep the back end riding light, Santa Cruz has done a great job of creating a chassis that shrugs shock more like a quality steel bike than most alloy frames.
Santa Cruz has done a great job of creating a chassis that shrugs shock more like a quality steel bike than most alloy frames Mick Kirkman / Immediate Media
The 29er — and particularly Plus — wheels/tyres also add a lot more flow and protection to the back of the bike than a conventional 27.5in bike, while the low weight and agile handling remove any worries about those same big wheels feeling dull and barge like.
We’re fully aware that there’s probably going to be some furious flaming along the lines of “they only love it because it says Santa Cruz on it and it’s just an average angled, alloy frame with fancy dropouts and a brand inflated price.” If I’m honest, that was my expectation before I rode it, too, because there’s not that much you can really do with an alloy hardtail frame, right? Especially one that’s supposed to be tough enough for serious trail hammer and doesn’t have any particularly radical elements to hang hysterical praise off.
Even our most cynical, underdog championing, gonzo geometry fans keyed into the Chameleon’s sweet spot balance straight away, though, and if you’re looking for an addictively enjoyable all rounder that’s both kneepad rowdy but race plate fast depending on your mood or wheel choice then it truly is an outstanding bike that’s well worth the money.
Unlike most new bike launches, you won’t have to wait to find out yourself either because in typical Santa Cruz style bikes were in stock in some shops before the official embargo even lifted.