First Ride Review: Santa Cruz Chameleon C SE 29 Reserve

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There can’t be many models of mountain bike out there which can claim to have the longevity of the Santa Cruz Chameleon.

It’s been around since 1996, when it burst onto the scene as one of a small handful of hard-hitting hardtails, boasting the capability to run a then-huge 100mm of front suspension, plus super-strong, singlespeed-compatible dropouts, and quickly won over the more refined dirt jumpers and street riders.

However it was also light enough to pedal, and many of them were built up to ride more than stair sets and six packs. After the Great Wheel Size Kerfuffle of the mid 2010s, it was relaunched in 2017 as a well-received 29er/27.5+ trail hardtail. And now, for the first time in its decades-long history, Santa Cruz has decided to up the bling factor by remaking the Chameleon in carbon fibre.

santa cruz chameleon
We were originally going to Photoshop this image to correct it. But we’ve decided to leave the valves in their current position.

The Santa Cruz Chamelon C

If its existence has previously passed you by and you’re wondering what type of bike the Chameleon is, there’s a clue in the name. It’s designed to be run with a modest 120mm travel fork (130mm in Plus guise) and is aimed at the mythical hardtail sweet spot – a bike that’s light enough for XC, strong enough for jumps.

santa cruz chameleon
Clean internal cable routing up front…
santa cruz chameleon internal cable routing
…and external for the back end.

Like the alloy version, it’ll fit 29in or 27.5+ wheels, and thanks to clever modular dropouts and changing the fork travel by 10mm, frame geometry and the BB height are kept the same regardless of wheelsize.

You can also get singlespeed-compatible dropouts (in pre-Boost 142x12mm spacing) that work with an integrated chain tensioner, and should you have an alloy Chameleon already, your spare dropouts will work with the new Chameleon C.

Clever dropouts integrate the rear disc calliper mount.
Your old skool hip hop name is…

When it comes to geometry and measurements, the Chameleon C is very much a faithful copy of its alloy precursor. Reach, stack and wheelbase are identical to within a couple of mm, and the head and seat tube angles remain the same, at a middling 67.3° and 72.8° degrees respectively.

The detailing of the two frames is also pretty similar. There’s partial internal cable routing and a good old threaded BB shell, while the long-distance riders get a nod in the form of a three-bolt cargo cage mount under the downtube. Maximum tyre clearance is 2.5in in 29er mode, and 3.0in in Plus mode.

Right, so with the basics covered, now on to the more interesting stuff…

santa cruz chameleon calderdale todmorden grim winter
We’re not in California anymore Toto!

The Ride

We were lucky enough to get our hands on the Chameleon C just before its official launch, and got to spend a dirty weekend up north with it.

The bike will be available as a frame only, priced at £1,399, a mid-priced “S” build at £3,799, or the top-of-the-line “SE Reserve” build, which will set you back a kingly £5,699.

Santa Cruz was nice enough to send us the SE, which seriously ups the bling factor (and the RRP) by coming with a set of Santa Cruz’s carbon-rimmed Reserve 27 wheels. As yet there’s no equivalent to the top-end CC full suspension bikes – C or alloy is all there is.

We got the fancy wheels.
Cool blue.

In the short time I spent with it, I was able to thrash the reborn Chameleon round a few local natural and man-made trails.

Initial impressions were a tad underwhelming. At 5’10 I’d personally choose a medium frame, and the large we were sent felt like a bit of a stretch. However on faster flowy trails, the sizing became less of an issue, and I could concentrate on what this bike does best: going forward at considerable speed, while extracting maximum entertainment from every bit of terrain.

After a full day of hammering our local trail centre, we really started to click, and even as daylight faded I was ready for another lap.

Calderdale sending.

Part of the reason I ended up getting on so well with the Chameleon is that it straddles the XC and trail categories so neatly. It feels light enough to really skip around when you need it to, but it’s also solid and planted, and certainly doesn’t get knocked off line easily, thanks in part to the solid Fox 34 forks.

It’s very much a cliché to say that a 29er doesn’t feel like a 29er, but it’s one that applies here. Santa Cruz has tucked the back wheel of the Chameleon as far forward as possible, with the result that even on my large frame it was easy to pop the front end of the bike up.

You can slam the rear wheel right in, which shortens the chainstay length to an itty-bitty 415mm.

When climbing though, there was nary a trace of front wheel wander, and it tackled lumpy winches as well as any full susser I’ve ridden recently. The low overall weight made thrutchy technical uphills a challenge instead of a chore.

On demanding downhills, the Chameleon feels much more composed than a hardtail with a modest amount of travel should. I’d put some of this down to the wide carbon rims and tubeless tyres taking some of the chatter out of the trail, but the frame also seems to hit the happy place between stiff and harsh.

The geometry may not be groundbreaking, but it helps give the bike an instantly familiar feel.

Being a Santa Cruz, the Chameleon of course gets a threaded BB.

With such a high-spec build such on our test bike, there wasn’t much to complain about. The Ardent Race rear tyre that comes stock on the 29er flattered the bike’s turn of speed, but wouldn’t be my first choice for winter rides on unsurfaced trails.

Tyre clearance in 29er mode is a tad tight, and I wouldn’t go wider than the recommended max width of 2.5in, but there’s always the Plus option if you want monster rubber.

There’s no denying that the SE Reserve build does come with a wince-inducing price tag, but I’m guessing that most buyers will be going for the S build or taking the frame-only route.

We did our best to get it dirty.


The Chameleon C might be a hefty investment, but it has a very appealing trait to make up for it – its adaptability. If you got tired of riding the bike as a 29er, you could Plus it or singlespeed it. And equally, if you get bored of sessioning your local bike park, you could heli-tape the frame, strap some bags to it and head off on a multi-day adventure.

It fits squarely into the general trend of making XC bikes more fun, and making trail bikes faster, and while it may not take over your local trails in the way that Santa Cruz’s full suspension bikes seem to have done, it’s proof that in 2019 there’s still space for a nice hardtail.

santa cruz chameleon carbon hardtail hope
The Tin Dragon.

Santa Cruz Chameleon C SE Reserve Specifications

  • Frame // Carbon C 29/27+ hardtail
  • Fork // Fox 34 Float, Performance Series, 120mm Travel
  • Hubs // Hope Pro 4, 110x15mm Front & 148x12mm Rear
  • Rims // Santa Cruz Reserve 27 carbon, 27mm Internal Width, 28h
  • Tyres // Maxxis Minion DHF EXO 3C MaxxTerra 2.3in Front & Ardent Race EXO 2.35in Rear
  • Chainset // SRAM X1 Eagle
  • Rear Mech // SRAM GX Eagle, 12-Speed
  • Shifter // SRAM GX Eagle, 12-Speed
  • Cassette // SRAM GX Eagle, 10-50t, 12-Speed
  • Brakes // SRAM Guide R
  • Bar // Race Face Aeffect R
  • Stem // Race Face Aeffect R, 50mm
  • Grips // Santa Cruz Palmdale
  • Seatpost // RockShox Reverb Stealth
  • Saddle // WTB Silverado
  • Size Tested // Large
  • Sizes Available // Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
  • RRP // £5,699

Review Info

Brand: Santa Cruz
Product: Chameleon C SE Reserve
Price: £5,699
Tested: by Antony de Heveningham for 1 weekend
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Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • First Ride Review: Santa Cruz Chameleon C SE 29 Reserve
  • fd3chris
    Free Member

    And I’ve just bought the alloy one! Not fussed about weight as mine rides lovely and isn’t heavy. I’m glad to see the geo is the same more importantly. Now to see if my rear end cracks like so many others with the adjuster bolts. Lifetime warranty, thank god for that!

    Full Member

    Yikes, £5.7K for a hard tail with performance series suspension and GX groupset!!! I’d go for the self build option.

    Free Member

    No mention of the actual weight?
    Given that it seems to be it’s main selling point, it’s an odd thing to miss out.

    Free Member

    Over 5000 for a hardtail is too much. Especially for one with only a GX eagle. Give me at least an X01 eagle and a factory shock and I’ll think about it.

    Full Member

    Uberpod, the quoted weight for the SE Reserve build that we tested is a whisker under 26lbs, but I’d imagine that anyone prepared to spend that much who was concerned about the weight would be able to shave a fair bit off that. Frame is about 1.8kg apparently.

    Free Member

    is that a manual attempt?

    Free Member

    Lovely hope ‘indigo’ blue hubs spoilt with sram guides, get some tech3s on there ..
    My aluminium weighs around 27-28 lbs, I don’t see the point of going to carbon, I’d have preferred steel ;0)
    Agree with the ardent race great summer tyre, not for a Yorkshire winter though

    Full Member

    howsyourdad1, I prefer the term “shamual”.

    Free Member

    I have an aluminum 2019 S+ with a 2019 DVO Sapphire 34 fork and it is the best bike I’ve ever owned….. the 2.8s in the loose over hard SoCal high desert that I call home are a game changer.

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)

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