Full disclosure, this is my first gravel bike. When gravel bikes entered the scene a few years, I initially remarked to myself this was another bike industry push to create something new and drive sales.
Essentially ‘gravel’ was marketing. Why not just give ‘er on your road bike with some 28c tires? Or really, just hop on the cyclocross bike and go? And all three of these thoughts are true. It is marketing hype. You can actually take a road bike and ride it on a gravel road. And a cyclocross bike works just fine, even if it’s not being ridden at full gas on a grassy slope. So where does this leave us and why did I buy a gravel bike?
My prior bike stable variously included a road bike and a cyclocross bike which sometimes doubled as a winter road bike with fenders. I had treated myself a couple of years ago, and was riding a Specialized Tarmac SWORKS which is truly a thoroughbred. Very fun to ride, but I was not racing. And I live in Whistler British Columbia, where there is limited options for road riding. I race a bit of cyclocross and previously had Trek Crockett for the few races I did each fall. I had a few goals with this purchase:
Reduce the bike quiver to 1 skinny tire bike. Ride it for everything. This was partially a budget decision,
Feel more comfortable riding the gravel-strewn and pothole-ridden roads of Whistler,
Maybe throw a leg over the bike for a CX race or 2, and
Explore some gravel roads. More specifically plan a big multi-day adventure with as much non-asphalt as possible.
In 2019, I was riding with a club supported by Trek. After doing my independent research, I was also suitably impressed by the Checkpoint, Trek’s gravel bike. So I pulled the trigger on a Checkpoint SL6 I purchased the bike right at the end of season, just as 2020 bikes with being announced and shipped. The SL6 model is almost identical year over year, save for graphics.Trek has introduced a SL7 model, with a SRAM Eagle drivetrain, but this was not for my liking. I specifically wanted a 2x drivetrain for versatility on paved roads (where the bike would actually spend most of its time).
The Checkpoint SL6 is a well appointed bike with a Cdn MSRP of $4999. Carbon frame and Ultegra groupo - this was really my starting point and floor of what I wanted. I was coming off a full DuraAce bike and was hesitant to give up any more. The SL6 comes with compact cranks and 11-34 cassette. I know the gearing makes sense, specifically to have a compact crankset - but I generally dislike compact. I specifically choose standard 39/53. Maybe I consider myself a ‘hard man’ but I should heed the signs of change. Trek no longer ships ANY road bike with standard cranks. Even their highest end road racing machine, Emonda, is compact. The build is as much house brand Bontrager as possible. My experience with Bontrager components has generally been fine. Nothing stand out, but good working stuff. And it allows Trek to appropriately appoint a bike and potentially keep costs down with their own OE parts.
Ultegra crankset. Many manufacturers look to cranksets as an opportunity to downgrade and save costs on overall build. Many OE or alternative cranksets are probably just fine, but I was reassured of having Ultegra crankset to match with the rest of my groupo. As well, if you are thinking of an aftermarket crankarm-based power meter, a la Stages or other, this is definitely important.
IsoZone drop bars. Well I got sold on the marketing here. IsoZone bars are simply an application of gel pad under the tape to absorb some vibration. Nothing fancy here. I was double taping my bars for extra cushioning in 1992. I was actually expecting a foam core bar, perhaps something like Spank Vibrocore. And I was slightly disappointed my 56cm bike was standard with 42cm wide bars in lieu of 44cm.
Bontrager Paradigm Elite 25 TLR Disc Road Wheel. While these were not actually sought after, I was reassured the wheel set was again not a place where build price had yielded a decision to have very cheap wheels. At 1682g for the wheel set, these are by no means light. But I hoped they would be light enough, and strong enough for some off road adventures. I actually planned for a second set of wheels. More on that later.
I have now had the opportunity to ride the Checkpoint a number of times and in a variety of conditions. This includes solo and group road rides, coaching high performance workouts including hill repeats and sprints, casual gravel rides and a cyclocross race. I have not yet taken the bike on a multi-day adventure. On the road, the bike feels settled and comfortable. I am about 5’11” with a 32” inseam and typically a 56cm bike fits me spot on. This was the case with Checkpoint, save for one fitment item. The Checkpoint uses an over-mast seatpost which is available in short and long. The 56cm frame comes standard with short, and my post is a couple of mm above the maximum height height line. I’m not a big fan of this system, but recognize it’s necessary for the the IsoSpeed system. Speaking of that, I don’t really notice the IsoSpeed decoupler. On the road, it’s imperceivable. On gravel, pretty much same. I put that in the positive attribute category. I know it’s working but I’m not fussed with it, nor does it change how I ride the bike. Great! Notably, the Checkpoint does not come with a front IsoSpeed system. Various comments from Trek claim it’s not required to achieve the ride quality desired. That’s BS. The Boone and now the Domane both have IsoSpeed on the front of frame. The Checkpoint will too in its next iteration. Otherwise the decision not to include this feature is based solely on frame manufacturing cost and bike price point. I have not ridden a Trek with IsoSpeed front but would be interested. The Checkpoint’s main competition, the Specialized Diverge has a proprietary Future Shock system.
What’s the best way to gauge the characteristics of a bike? Well doing some sprints and big hill climbs is a start. Out of the saddle putting down maximum power into the Checkpoint, it feels like a nice carbon road bike. The geometry for standing with hands on hoods is comfortable. The bike was slightly less responsive than I’m used to, but for all but crit racing, the performance deficit would be negligible. At 20 lbs, this bike is not featherweight. If you are a weight weenie, this may be an issue. The weight actually surprised me, given it’s a full carbon frame with Ultegra groupo, but then I compared to a similar Domane and found the weight almost identical. I did also take off the water bottle cage one day and try my hand at a local cyclocross race. For this, I mounted some UCI-legal 32cc tires and went for it. Again, not once during the lung-seering leg-aching 45 minutes of my race did I actually think about the bike. I didn’t remark to myself about handling characteristics or not being a 1x gear setup. I just rode the bike. And it worked fine.
A lot of time is spent on the internet by folks obsessing about frame geometry and implied ride characteristics. So now I have too. Comparing the Checkpoint, Boone and Domaine, they are all very similar. I would expect a gravel bike, compared to a cyclocross bike, would be generally slacker with a lower BB height. I was surprised that the head tube angle on the Checkpoint is just slightly steeper and the trail is significantly less. In the past, Trek has marketed different bike fitment styles for road bikes, namely H1, H2 and H3. These go from ‘racer fit’ to a more relaxed upright fitment posture. For Checkpoint, Trek makes no mention of this branding. Compared to the Domane, the frame stack is ~2cm higher but they share a 100mm stem length.
Before buying this bike, and embarking on the one bike for all purposes idea, I planned to purchase a second wheel set. This would allow me to have a lighter wheel set for road use, with 28c road tires and potentially steeper gearing. I ended up purchasing a set of Easton EA90SL wheels with Schwalbe Pro One TLE's. Another disclosure, I am an ambassador for Easton and Schwalbe. The EA90SL wheel set is a comprise. Not the fancy carbon wheels I was hoping for, but best bang for your buck and same weight as their carbon cousin, EC90 SL, at <1500g. I installed a 11-28 cassette which seems plenty of gear range still for road only, especially with a compact crankset. The ability to swap wheel set and choose between road and off-road adventures in 60 seconds is a game changer. I highly encourage riders thinking along the same lines as me, one bike for all, to consider two wheel sets.
I have already mentioned the short seat mast. But what are the other details I have found that need attention?
Tires. The Checkpoint comes stock with 35mm tires but specifically calls out that 40c’s fit. In the age of gravel, why not 40c’s stock? The Domane, a road bike, now comes with 32c and fitment for 38c’s! This seems a miss for real gravel riding as compared to other similar bikes.
The ‘missing’ front IsoSpeed decoupler I have also mentioned. Dimes to dollars, this is coming. My 2019 model is full Ultegra, while the 2020 model of the SL6 now is equipped with an Ultegra RX rear derailleur. It would be nice to have a clutch derailleur but I have not specifically noticed a lot of chain slap while riding on gravel or off-road.
All of the rubber grommets in the mounting locations on the bike. There must be 1000 on the bike, for fenders, panniers, racks, packs, bottles and whatever. I’ve not used many yet. But I’ve already lost a grommet from my fork and now have a hole in my bike.
The last is internal storage. This is now a frame feature for the Domane, and like the front IsoSpeed I am confident it will be included in the next iteration of the Checkpoint. It’s a great feature that I’ve used on my Specialized Enduro (and been told it’s coming on the new Diverge too). Tube, pump or CO2, small tool, and maybe even some emergency food or a windbreaker.
The experiment is ongoing. So far, I have not missed my dedicated road bike. I’ve been having fun riding the Checkpoint everywhere. And it can even do duty as a CX bike in a pinch. As spring approaches here in Whistler, I have been out riding on the road (while the trails and gravel are all still covered in snow). With very dirty roads, lots of gravel and big pot holes, the Checkpoint has been a star. I’m riding with the 35c tires at about 70 psi and they are confidence inspiring on these crappy road surfaces. Back to the marketing. I dislike ‘gravel’ as a class of bikes, but am also hesitant to add something new. But if I were a marketer sitting in Madison WI, probably I’d call the Checkpoint the ‘all road’ bike