Santa Cruz Chameleon
"Is that a dirt jump bike?" Well it could be. The question is one we've gotten more than once with regards to our Santa Cruz Chameleon. Just like its namesake, it can look like lots of things — cross-country racer, geared or single-speed, pump track missile, dirt jumper. Where this one's got the lizard beat is that it can actually be many things. When we looked at the Chameleon and contemplated putting one together, we figured the mission of the bike should dictate the build and sizing. Since we were interested in the Chameleon for single-speed XC duty, we sized the top tube accordingly. If we were building it for the park and figured it'd see more DJ and pumptrack action, we'd have ordered the next size down so it would be a little more flickable. As it is, our review will be biased towards its singletrack attributes.
The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a hardtail, standard in the fact that it lacks rear suspension, but different in its adaptability. It features an eccentric bottom bracket which allows the bike to be used with a single ring and cog, just like a BMX bike. The eccentric bottom bracket has enough range of movement to tension your chain in any number of gear combinations. A 4mm hex key and a pin spanner are all the tools you'll need to make tension changes on your chain. If you use a derailleur and a multi-gear cassette, the eccentric bb becomes just a bottom bracket and doesn't require any adjustment or fiddling. The frame is complete with low profile cable guides and stops. They offer everything you'd need to fix derailleur housings and brake hoses. And if you are running the bike as a single-speeder, as we did, the unused guides won't get in your way.
The 6066 alloy frame is your standard double diamond configuration, but it has a few cool features that make it stand out. Starting at the front, it has a 1-1/8" headtube that has some of its excess wall thickness machined away and it uses press-in style bearing cups. Your Chris King or new Cane Creek 110 should go right in there. Just behind the headtube is a great looking gusseted area. There is a patch gusset on the underside of the downtube/headtube junction, but the cool one is the triangular wraparound gusset that fills in the space between the top and down tubes. When we pulled our new frame out of the box, there was a moment of recollection that conjured memories of our first BMX bikes. Aaaahh, the purity. We lost it as we grew up and started grabbing gears to get over hill and dale. With the Chameleon, we've gone back to basics. The top tube is hydroformed and runs past the seat tube, forming a wishbone arrangement with the seatstays. It is pierced by the seat tube along the way. This multi-shaped top tube drops down at a nice angle, allowing plenty of standover clearance without leaving the seatpost subject to extreme forces because it is extended too much at full ride height.
The Chameleon also has vertical dropouts. Wheel changes are easy because that's what we're used to --the hub slides in like normal. We like this because we're not interested in fiddling around when we patch a tire on the trail. It pulls up into place as easy as any other bike, easier and quicker in fact than a geared bike because there is no derailleur to mess with. Vertical dropouts offer two other benefits. It's a stiff, flex-free tube joint and the rear disc brake caliper position never changes when you change gears. All of the tensioning takes place at the bottom bracket, remember? The icing on the cake is a bottle opener on the drive side dropout. We've used it for popping the cap off a couple of …root beers after a good ride on many occasions.
Since it's made of oversize aluminum tubes, the chameleon rides just as you'd expect. It's plenty stiff and will resist your best offering. Hammer down and the bike surges forward on the trail like only a hardtail can do. In a time when many of us ride all-mountain bikes with regularity, a ride on the Chameleon reminds us where we came from. We hung a 100mm Fox RLC fork on Ol' Blue. According to Santa Cruz, that's the bare minimum for recommended travel. They hint that a 100mm fork would steer quickly, maybe too quickly. We found that the 100mm fork makes the bike feel like a cross country racer, which is absolutely what we'd intended the bike to be. We think it is well balanced and the steering feels just right for carving up the local trails. We measured the head angle on level ground and it came in at 69.8°. As with any hardtail with a short fork, it finds its limit (or maybe we find ours) on washed out, loose descents.
There are a few other parts worth a mention. The stock eccentric is a good one. We've ridden a few different single-speed frames with different types of eccentrics -- single wedge, double wedge, solid w/set screws, etc. The one that comes with the Chameleon isn't branded, so we'll be satisfied that it is just another unsung house-brand hero. It's actually very good. Some that we've used in the past are difficult to keep in place or wiggle relentlessly and squeak and creak. This one hasn't given us any problems of any kind. When we built the bike, we applied a thin layer of grease to all of the working components and simply bolted it all together. We like to use a flexible Park pin spanner in conjunction with the 4mm hex wrench when we make adjustments. If you've never loosened one before, it can be a little finicky. The bolt will come loose, but you won't be able to turn the eccentric because the wedge isn't loose yet. Continued loosening of the 4mm bolt will produce a strange "tightening" feeling, but keep loosening and the wedge will start to move and the eccentric will become free. At that point, the chain tension can be adjusted and the eccentric can be tightened back up.
When we assembled the bike, another thing we noticed about the Chameleon was the shapely chainstay yoke and rectangular section stays. At first, they just looked good. When we pulled a wheel into the rear triangle, it was evident that the configuration was more than window dressing. The tire clearance is good, and so is the chainring clearance. The chainring clearance is just notable for us as we currently run a freewheel hub out back and the chainline is close to 60mm off center. Our ring is bolted onto the outside of the crank spider. However, a single-speed cassette hub might require a chainline closer to 50mm and the ring would be best on the inside of the spider. The good news is that there would be plenty of clearance because of the slim profile of the chainstay yoke. The chainstay length is roughly 16.5" (technically it changes with eccentric adjustment). The short chainstays helped the bike feel really maneuverable on tight rocky trails. It manualed and wheelied easily, so that gave us confidence on ledge drops and washed out creekbeds.
The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a great hardtail mountain bike. Just under $600, it's reasonably priced and offers a stiff and reasonably light (4.3 lbs) foundation for geared or single-speed applications. We like the shaping on the tubes, the gussets, and the vertical dropouts. Our preferred method of chain tensioning is the eccentric. It has one, so we're happy about that too. It uses a 30.9mm seatpost, so it's big enough to accept a gravity dropper style post if your bike serves dual duty going up and coming down. It should also be noted that the eccentric BB shell is 68mm wide. Though we used a Shimano crank with external bearing cups, we know that Santa Cruz recommends a 68 x 113mm spindle length for anyone using an ISIS style crank and BB. We'd happily report any problems or shortcomings, but Ol' Blue doesn't have any problems other than the silent burden of supporting our off-season weight. Good luck to it. We'll wish it the best as we try to work off our holiday treats with some killer rides this winter.