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Santa Cruz Chameleon Carbon Review

Having a nice hardtail in your fleet of rigs is something most MTBers aspire to have. It is the bike that takes you back to your childhood, back to your roots, where it all started in the local woods.

I am not talking about a dirt jump bike or an XC bike, but something has has a bit of an attitude about it, something that wants you to go a bit faster than you should comfortably be going. I have owed this sort of bike for as long as I have been riding almost. It started with the DMR Trailstar, which moved to the Orange MsIsle, to a Giant STP, to a Production Privee Shan and now with this Chameleon.

I have worked my way up, its been a process that has taken me the best part of 20 years to reach owning the beautiful Santa Cruz. Fork upgrades here, wheel upgrades there, frame upgrades every 3-4 years. It has been fun journey.

This type of bike has always been a bike kept in the garage for winter months, for getting dirty and just throwing back in the shed. The riding experience is raw and insanely fun, going half the speed of your full sus bike but feels like you are going twice the speed! As for improving your skills, what can be better? All of a sudden line choice is critical and weighting and unweighting correctly is key to not loose speed and compress your spine. Highly recommend!

Some things are quite key for aggressive hardtail setup. Tyres are probably the biggest one. Run a descent sidewall tyre with a bit of volume to it. A DH casing or double down or similar. Something so you can run lower pressure and get extra suppleness from the carcass of the tyre. Having that transforms hardtail experiences.

The second most important is having a good fork and running it harder than normal. When you ride a hardtail aggressively you are relying on the fork more as you will probably be weighting the front of the bike more. So you need it to sit up and support you. Use front tyre pressure to help with small bump compliance and the forks to help keep the front stood up. I run around 19psi in the rear and 20psi up front in the tyres.

So onto the carbon Chameleon. How does the build look on this. Well I got the frame and swapped the parts from my old hardtail. Being 180cm tall I went for a medium as I like smaller bikes, I like a fun ride that I have to take part in as opposed to being a passenger on an oil tanker. I built it up with 27.5 wheels (you can choose to run this frame as a 29/27.5/27.5 plus by altering the dropouts. Very cool. You can also run it single speed if you want as the drop outs have a tensioning system integrated, how versatile! There were a few colour options but when I saw the Bronze and Blue in flesh it took hold of me and I had to have it, just a beautiful bike.

I treated myself to a new fork for this build too. I went for the new Rock Shox Pike Ultimate in the grey as the colour tone just works with the bronze Chameleon. I run the fork at 150mm travel, I did try 160mm but it just felt a bit high up front for general riding. I run this fork with 3 tokens and 100psi. So quite stiff.

Wheels are DT EX471 rims on DT 350 hubs. I am a huge fan of these rims - light and bombproof. Also not too stiff which is also important to how the bike rides, anything you can do get a bit of extra compliance and comfort is a must when riding this sort of bike hard in rough terrain.

I have been riding this bike a lot locally around where I live during the whole Covid 19 lockdown here in NZ. That has involved in lots of XC pedals on easier terrain to not take any risks. For this I put on some Goodyear Escapes in a 2.6 size. They are quite high volume fast rolling XC/trail tyre. I have been a massive fan of them and they have surprised me how grippy they are giving they small tight tread pattern. They are also super comfy to ride with the big volume, this type of tyre makes so much sense for long trail rides on a hardtail. More comfort from the volume and really fast rolling, with descent grip, what is not to love? When winter really kicks in I will put something heavier and more aggressive on.

The rest of the build consists of a SRAM 11 Spd drivetrain, carbon descendant cranks, One up V2 180mm dropper post, Renthal 38mm rise DH bars, 35mm Deity Copperhead stem and some old Avid X0 Trail brakes which I have owned for years and think they are still the best brakes SRAM have ever done and I will run them until they are dead.


When I first got the Chameleon built up I took it for the obligatory car park test and I shit you not I popped it up into a wheely which felt unbelievable easy and then proceeded to do my best one handed wheely effort ever. The short and tight rear end made it feel like a BMX which is exactly what Iam always after with a hardtail.

It was also light, I mean really light. Easily the lightest bike I have owned for quite a few years, we are talking around 27/28 lbs. Not bad considering it wasn't built up to be light.

The froth was high and I couldn't help myself but to just grab my bike park season pass and go and do a few bike park laps to see how she handled.

The plan was to do a couple easy laps of the green and easier blue trails to get a feel for it. But I ended up bumping into some friends and I couldnt help just follow them of down some of our go to trails. The bike just felt so comfortable straight away I thought, yolo, why not.

Even with the more XC tyre setup I had on the bike I didn't find myself holding back and was keeping pace with the others. Which didn't surprise me too much apart from the fact that the conditions were dry and usually riding a hardtail in the bike park mid summer is not my idea of a good time. Usually it is survival mode and you are just hanging on for dear life meanwhile your spine wants to punch you in the face from the successive bad line choices and holes you hit.

But the Chameleon wasn't doing this to me, there was no nasty harshness reverberating through my spine. Instead I knew I had hit the bumps but was more of a dull thud than a spine shattering bang. My greatest fear of owning a carbon hardtail was it was going to be too stiff. I was so relieved when I realised it wasn't the case with the Chameleon. It has a beautiful amount of flex built into the carbon layup which amplifies the ride quaility. What a bike.

A couple of laps turned into 6 laps and you couldnt wipe the grin off my face if you tried. This was mountain biking in its rawest most fun format. I felt like I was a kid again and for that Santa Cruz, I thank you.

Let me put a small disclaimer out there however, the characteristics of what I look for in a bike are a bit different to the norm and definitely different to what a lot of the industry tells you you should be looking for in a bike, especially a hardtail like this.

I like smaller bikes that give me a full interactive experience on the trail. I dont like bikes that are too big, I want something a bit shorter with a low standover. I like to spend time in the air, I like to jump from line to line, corner to corner. I dont want to be a passenger. This keeps your skills sharp and you have to work to go fast. This isn't for everyone and it depends on your particular skill set and experience. I come from a DH racing and dirt jumping background and racing in the early 2000's involved small bikes, its what I love and what I am used to. So I wouldn't buy this bike is you are looking for something that is going to get you out of the shit, this is a bike that rewards rider input and finesse. It will sharpen your skills and make you a better rider. If you want a longer, lower, slacker plough machine there are plenty of options out there. But if you want a bike that will reward you for more thoughtful, smooth and ultimately improved riding style, look no further.

If you are looking up ay Santa Cruz then get in touch we can help you put together your dream build.

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