Out with the old. In with the new. I said goodbye to my 2015 Salsa El Mariachi 3 and am in a relationship with a new ride; a 2019 Santa Cruz Chameleon 29 R. This is my 4th Chameleon. I had three in the mid-2000’s when 26″ was still a thing. There is a lot to figure out.

After 30 calls and 30 no’s to California shops inquiring if any Chameleon 29 R’s were in stock, Competitive Cyclist in Utah came through on the 31st. Persistence baby! The break-in ride came on the most difficult trail I’ve ridden in San Diego; the Big Rock trail on Cowles Mountain. It owned me the first time. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the requisite commitment to ride it well and broke my finger in a crash. Read about it here. Testing the new bike on a trail only ridden one other time on a different bike was, perhaps, unwise? Yes is the answer. Did it anyway. Let’s get to it.


Most of the complaints below are forgettable. Inconvenient, but forgettable. Minor adjustments can fix some of the issues. Easy enough. Product managers need to spec OEM with “best for most” mentality. With that framework, let’s get this stuff out of the way:

  1. Rear tire. Maxxis Ardent Race 29 x 2.3. Awful. Skips and slides on everything. It only kind of hooks up with pressure around 16-17 but support is compromised.
  2. The Race Face Aeffect dropper post lever gets hung up on the SRAM Level T brake clamp and is unable to retract to its resting position if depressed too hard. Not fun when getting ready for a climb and you sink into the bike.
  3. SRAM Level T brakes. Um, not good. Just, not good. Dead feeling.
  4. The 780 mm bars are too narrow for a size Large.
  5. The rear derailleur wasn’t adjusted correctly. The low limit screw didn’t limit anything and my chain lodged into the spokes. Twice.
  6. Santa Cruz Palmdale grips are thin. Hands sore and bruised after a 5.5 mi ride.


Let’s get to the meat.

Fun. Playful. Tight. The dang thing scoots and every trail feature is an excuse to get air. The bike can be tossed around effortlessly and easily manipulated. Better tires are required to fully take advantage of the bike’s descending prowess, but it can be leaned. Hard. Transitions between turns are done with ease and I audibly laughed during a couple of them.

Compared to the El Mariachi, the long wheelbase and short chainstay’s are unfamiliar to me. This is one of the features the frame is universally praised by riders for because it’s an attribute that gives the bike it’s playful personality. Take a look at Feed The Habit‘s and Gear Lab‘s reviews. I too like this, but don’t know how to ride with it yet. The short stays disrupt my timing up technical, ledgy climbs. The extra 15 mm in the El Mar gave a bit more time to adjust my weight forward before the rear tire hit what I was trying to clear. Not so with the Chameleon. The bike required a quicker response.

Another observation was the bikes twitchy nature, both climbing and descending, over loose, pebble strewn trails; baseball and softball sized pebbles. Perhaps taking advantage of the adjustable dropouts would stabilize the ride a bit, but I’m not sure I want to do that. More rides are needed with the current stay length to better understand the bike. Twist my arm. . .Ok. I’ll go ride. More to follow.

Final Thoughts

A bike is never perfect out of the box. It takes months of getting used to it before personalization and equipment adjustments bring out the best in the ride and rider. More time is needed to get a deeper understanding on the capabilities of the bike.

Though there are quirks I’m not familiar with, and more time is needed to better understand the bike, Santa Cruz put its magic into this lizard. I haven’t laughed on a bike like I have on this one in 15 years.

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