Santa Cruz Carbon Chameleon (C): First Ride Report

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Santa Cruz just unveiled the Chameleon C, a carbon version of their bikepacking-friendly trail hardtail. We had a chance to put some miles on it prior to the release. Here are all the details, specs, a boatload of photographs, and some first ride impressions…

Originally released back in the mid-late 90s, the Santa Cruz Chameleon (aka Tin Lizard) has seen several upgrades and reiterations over the years. The original was created to morph between a freeride hardtail and single speed XC rig, and everything in between–hence the name. Since then, the Chameleon has evolved a few times (eight, to be exact), but it’s always been all about versatility. Released in 2017, the aluminum seventh version was designed to change its colors from a trail hardtail to a bikepacking steed, according to Santa Cruz. To do so, it featured swappable dropouts that enabled it to run 29er or 27.5+ tires equally well. We never got a chance to try one, but Santa Cruz recently sent us a demo of the eighth edition, which carries over the 27.5+/29er capability as the Carbon Chameleon (Chameleon C).

Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon

  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Highlights
  • Angles: 67.3° Headtube, 72.8° Seattube
  • Chainstay: 415-430mm
  • Bottom Bracket: 73mm threaded
  • Hub specs: 15 x 110mm (front); 12 x 148mm (rear)
  • Seatpost Diameter: 31.6mm
  • Max Tire Size: 27.5 x 3.0″ / 29 x 2.5″
  • Weight (as tested): 27.02 lbs (12.26 kg)

So what exactly is the Santa Cruz Chameleon C, and who’s it for? In essence, it’s a high-end trail hardtail aimed to hit a storybook sweet spot between lightweight XC bike and rowdy tough trail rig. It’s designed around an unassuming 120mm travel fork—130mm in Plus mode—but with a relatively slack front-end and a long stance, it feels more like trail bike than the fork might exude. Is the Chameleon C the ideal bikepacking hardtail for races such as the Colorado Trail and AZT? A very strong maybe.

What’s Changed?

Aside from the fact that the new Chameleon C has a snazzy bronze/blue paint scheme, one might think Santa Cruz simply remolded the 2017 aluminum version in full carbon. However, it turns out that Santa Cruz fiddled under the hood with Chameleon C’s geometry for number eight. Nothing major, but they did cut a few millimeters here and add a few more there. Most notably, the Carbon Chameleon got an 8mm higher bottom bracket. Although I haven’t tried the aluminum version, I’ve found the current clearance to be spot on. The C also has a slightly shorter reach and a hair slacker head tube angle, resulting in an 8mm longer wheelbase. There are a few other minor tweaks, such as a 4mm shorter reach and a 3mm higher stack, but otherwise, it’s generally the same creature, aside from the build.

Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon

  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon

Other frame features include internal cable routing up front that goes external at the rear end. The new Carbon Chameleon also gets a triple-pack of bottle bosses under the downtube, a nice touch for added utility.

29er, 27.5+, and/or Singlespeed

As with the 2017/2018 alloy version, the Carbon Chameleon can be set up as a 29er or 27.5+, geared or single-speed via the same clever modular dropouts, each with a built in chain tensioner. There are four different swappable dropouts: Boost 27.5+, Boost 29er, 142×12 Singlespeed 27.5+, and 142×12 Singlespeed 29er. This interchangeable system enables the Chameleon to maintain the same frame geometry and the BB height regardless of wheel size. Note that Santa Cruz also switches from a 120mm fork to 130mm in the plus tire builds to maintain the same angles.

We’re testing the Carbon Chameleon setup in 29er mode, but as you can see in the photos below, there looks to be a lot of clearance. I’ll also be trying it out with 27.5+ wheels, so stay tuned for more there.

  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon

Santa Cruz Chameleon C SE Build

The carbon Santa Cruz Chameleon C is offered as a frame only for $1,599, in S or S+ builds for $3,799, or SE/SE+ for $5,699. We’re testing the 29er SE build with custom blue Hope hubs and headset, Santa Cruz Reserve 27 carbon rims (the 27.5+ SE+ gets Reserve 37). The build kit offered on the high-end SE is pretty well dialed, especially the Float 120mm fork, Eagle drivetrain, carbon hoops, and quick engagement Hope hubs. Here’s the full build, as tested:

  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • FRAME Carbon C 29/27+ Hardtail
  • FORK FOX 34 Float Performance, 120mm, 29″
  • R. DERAILLEUR SRAM GX Eagle, 12spd
  • SHIFTERS SRAM GX Eagle, 12spd
  • CASSETTE SRAM XG1275 Eagle, 12spd, 10-50T
  • CHAIN SRAM GX Eagle, 12spd
  • BB SRAM DUB 68/73mm Threaded BB
  • HEADSET Hope Integrated Headset
  • REAR TIRE Maxxis Ardent Race, 29″x2.35″ EXO TR
  • FRONT TIRE Maxxis Minion DHF, 29″x2.3″ 3C EXO TR
  • SEALANT Stan’s Sealant
  • TAPE BMD 30mm Rim Tape
  • FRONT HUB Hope Pro 4, 110×15, 28h
  • RIMS Santa Cruz Reserve 27 29″ Carbon Rims
  • SPOKES DT Swiss Competition Race
  • REAR HUB Hope Pro 4, 148×12, XD, 28H
  • FRONT ROTOR Avid Centerline 180mm
  • REAR ROTOR Avid Centerline 180mm
  • BRAKES SRAM Guide R
  • CRANKSET SRAM X1 Eagle 148 DUB, 30T – 170mm (XS-S), 175mm (M-XXL)
  • HANDLEBAR Race Face Aeffect R
  • STEM Race Face Aeffect R, 50mm
  • SADDLE WTB Silverado Pro Saddle
  • SEATPOST RockShox Reverb Stealth, 31.6
  • GRIPS Santa Cruz Palmdale Grips
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon

First Impressions (to be continued)

In a nutshell, this bike is surprisingly capable as a 29er. I’ve now put around 200 miles on it, from the rooty, rocky, frozen trails of Pisgah to a handful of rides on the technical singletrack of Sedona, including a 45-mile overnighter that I just finished hours before typing this. My first impressions are different based on the terrain, of course. In Pisgah—a place that should probably be reserved for full-suspension bikes—I found the stiff carbon frame to be somewhat bone-rattling and wished I was testing the 27.5+ version. In Sedona, where the trails are a little more flowy and require nimble tech maneuvers, I absolutely love this bike. For lack of a better analogy, it floats like a butterfly over this terrain. When it was loaded up, I was equally impressed, the carbon almost came to life under load, surprisingly. That said, as with all of our reviews, I like to put in closer to 1,000 miles before finalizing a review, so check back. I also plan on trying it with 27.5+ wheels and tires to get the full experience…

Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon

  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon
  • Santa Cruz Chameleon C, Carbon Chameleon

Photos above show the Chameleon C decked out with an ultralight kit. The bolt-on, custom, Cuben fiber frame bag was provided by Rockgeist alongside a matching Gondola dropper-specific seat pack. Stay tuned for a detailed, in-depth review of the Santa Cruz Carbon Chameleon C in the coming weeks. I’ll also be including a full gear kit list as used in this accessory bag free 15 lb (6.8 kg) set up, which I’ve been using for overnighters recently. In the meantime, watch Santa Cruz’s launch video below and find more info about the Carbon Chameleon over at SantaCruzBicycles.com.

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