Santa Cruz hasn't tampered much with its 2016 line of mountain bikes, keeping geometries, materials, and suspension largely the same. Despite that willingness to let a successful stable of machines continue to succeed, Santa Cruz did find a few places to improve on the Chameleon R Complete Mountain Bike for the new model year. By adding the option for stealth dropper routing and spearing the rear wheel with a Komodo-sized 12x142mm axle, Santa Cruz has increased the already monstrous capabilities of everyone's favorite flexible trail-head lizard.
The frame's protean front and rear ends return unaltered, though. The rear dropouts can be swapped for a singlespeed setup, making for one hell of a gritty lizard that's guaranteed to net mad gnar points on any 100-mile endurance race. If you're more into abusing the trail without abusing your own personal self, though, the dropouts on the Chameleon R build come prepped to take advantage of the full range of its Shimano SLX cassette. This flexibility also extends to the front end, where the Chameleon can fade from shades of short-travel XC to the distinctive hue of a six-inch enduro fork. The R build comes spec'd with a 130mm RockShox Sektor RL Gold, which splits the difference between the frame's min/max spread of 100mm to 150mm.
Unlike with its saurian namesake, the Chameleon R's changes are more than just skin-deep. The singlespeed-to-cassette switch speaks for itself, but changing forks also alters the bike's geometry. With a 100mm fork, the seat angle gets steeper and the bottom bracket height drops for a forward-leaning, aggressive XC geometry that puts power above all else while virtually banishing wheel flop. As travel approaches 150mm, the bike gets taller and the head tube slacks out for stability at speed that holds lines like, well, like a chameleon clinging to a stick with its little tail coiled up. Only not as cute.
Without a solid platform, all that mutability is just a pointless gimmick. The 6066 aluminum tubing — inflated to increase diameter and stiffness in key power transfer areas — proves that the Chameleon isn't just a pretty paint job that can perform neat parlor tricks. The larger diameter of the tubes also increases structural integrity, even with thinner walls. The Chameleon's weight savings and stiffness prove that there's still a place in XC racing for alloy frames, and the tapered head tube nets all the steering precision and responsiveness-under-torque that we've come to expect from Santa Cruz.
The build kits Santa Cruz is throwing at its stable represent the biggest change for the new model year. The Chameleon R's spec sheet is no exception to this rule, but it does see less change than many of the California-based manufacturer's other models. The changes worth noting include a Shimano Deore crankset and front derailleur, both of which replace SRAM models, establishing a nice symmetry with the rest of the Shimano drivetrain. The rest of the Chameleon R build kit remains virtually unchanged for 2016 — welcome news for anyone who, like us, enjoyed the previous model's willingness to sample jumps and park furniture in a decidedly non-XC manner.