Trek Checkpoint dives headfirst into the red-hot gravel bike market

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After tentatively dipping its toes into the red-hot gravel waters last year with the lukewarm Domane Gravel, Trek is now being anything but tentative with the new Checkpoint family. The new carbon fiber and aluminum frames feature dedicated geometries, a slew of gravel-specific features, and Smart spec across the board.

Much of the U.S. CyclingTips staff has already spent the last couple of weeks on the new Checkpoint, and there’s no sense in beating around the bush: if gravel is your gig, this thing is not only good, but also seriously good fun.

What makes the Checkpoint a “gravel bike”, anyway?

It took the bike industry a few years to settle on a widely accepted definition of what a gravel-specific bike actually is, and admittedly, the differences are subtle. But there are genuine distinctions nevertheless, and the Checkpoint isn’t just a Domane endurance bike or Boone/Crockett cyclocross racer wearing different clothes. Indeed, there’s space in between those shades of grey, and the Checkpoint seems to color it in nicely.

Frame geometry is closest to that of Trek’s Boone/Crockett cyclocross cousins, with virtually unchanged wheelbase and reach, the same chainstay lengths, and nearly identical stack heights and head tube angles across the size range. Stability on loose surfaces is often a highly desirable trait for gravel bikes, though, so Trek has dropped the bottom bracket an extra 8-9mm relative to the Boone, depending on size. That may not sound like much on paper, but geometry geeks will confirm that it’s a substantial difference.

Trek Checkpoint Schwalbe G-One
Although every Checkpoint will officially clear tires up to 45mm-wide, stock bikes are equipped with 35mm-wide rubber, which Trek says strikes a better balance between off-road capability and on-road speed.

Quite interestingly, however, Trek is not prioritizing stability above all else on the Checkpoint.

As already mentioned, the wheelbase and chainstay lengths are roughly the same as the built-for-cyclocross-racing Boone, and the nearly identical stack and reach offers a similarly aggressive fit. But Trek has equipped each Checkpoint front-end with more fork rake — and, subsequently, less trail — which will actually make the bikes more responsive to steering input, not less. Trek’s philosophy here is that while the Boone is meant to be ridden primarily off-pavement, the Checkpoint is designed for a wider range of applications, and the combination of a nimbler front-end and lower center of gravity will make for more versatile handling.

That said, Trek also understands that different riders will want different handling traits. To address that, sliding “Stranglehold” dropouts on every Checkpoint — aluminum or carbon — allow for an extra 15mm of chainstay length. The shortest position will provide the handling characteristics described above, but extending the rear end up to a 440mm chainstay length will certainly mellow things out. Those sliding dropouts will allow for easy singlespeed setups, too.

Trek Checkpoint Stranglehold dropouts
Sliding “Stranglehold” dropouts allow for 15mm of adjustment, ranging from a relatively tidy 425mm for quick handling, up to 440mm for more stability.

Most importantly, Trek has graced the Checkpoint with the legitimately generous tire clearance that was lacking in the Domane Gravel. Whereas that stopgap maxed out at a modest 35mm, the new Checkpoint will swallow tires up to 700x45c, which is particularly impressive given that the chainstays are the same length as the Boone and Crockett.

Credit for this feat goes to the dropped driveside chainstay, which takes a dramatic detour down around the chainrings to create some extra space. Trek may not have come up with this concept — Open debuted the same idea on the original UP in 2016 — but it’s effective nonetheless.

Regardless, fans of Road Plus wheel-and-tire setups will be disappointed to hear that while they might fit, Trek doesn’t recommend using them on account on the already-low bottom bracket.

Trek Checkpoint chainstays
The non-driveside chainstay takes a nominally straight path between the bottom bracket and dropout, but the driveside chainstay is dropped down to clear the crankset while still retaining a relatively short rear end.

Up top on carbon Checkpoints is yet another iteration of Trek’s IsoSpeed “decoupler” at the seat cluster, comprising a pivoting axle system that allows the semi-integrated seatmast to flex more over rough terrain than a more traditional fixed junction would. Aluminum models unfortunately do without.

In terms of other features, however, Trek has stacked the deck on the Checkpoint.

Larger frame sizes (56cm and up) can fit three water bottles inside the main triangle (with room for a frame bag in some configurations), and there’s an additional mount on the underside of the down tube. Rack and fender mounts are standard as well, and bosses on the fork blades can be used for even more bottles, or Trek’s own 720 lowrider rack system. For easier on-the-go access, yet another set of bosses on the top tube (carbon Checkpoint models only) are positioned for any number of popular “Bento Box” bags.

Trek Checkpoint bottle mounts
Frame sizes 56cm and up have room for three water bottles inside the main triangle; others can fit two. In all cases, though, there’s an additional mount on the underside of the down tube.

The stock stems come with a selection of Bontrager’s tidy Blendr integrated light and computer mounts, too.

Other highlights include internal cable routing, BB90 or PF86 press-fit bottom brackets (depending on the model), integrated chain-catchers, 12mm thru-axles and flat-mount disc brakes throughout, and generous armoring on the underside of carbon models.

Claimed weight for a 56cm carbon Checkpoint frame is a respectable 1,240g, plus 470g for the matching all-carbon fork. Aluminum Checkpoint frames tip the scales at 1,570g (claimed), plus 600g for the carbon-and-aluminum fork.

Smart spec

It’s common these days for bike companies to mix-and-match components to hit desired price points, but Trek has instead opted for full Shimano groupsets and proper hydraulic disc brakes across the board, even on the least-expensive Checkpoint ALR 4. According to Trek, it was more important to provide Checkpoint users with a consistently high-quality experience than to save a few pennies, and while buyers on more modest budgets will naturally have to content with some additional weight, it’s good to know that shift and brake performance will change little across the model range.

Trek Checkpoint armoring
Armoring on the underside of the down tube protects against rocks that might be thrown up from the front wheel.

All Checkpoint models will also share the same wide-range gearing, with compact 50/34T chainrings matched to 11-34T, 11-speed cassettes. This should provide ample ratio options for most users, although it’s worth noting that riders looking to load their Checkpoints down with heavier loads might quickly find their bikes overgeared on climbs. Rumors have been circulating for some time now that Shimano is about to introduce chainring options that are more gravel/adventure-friendly, but it appears they’re not quite ready yet.

In a nod to the varied terrain on which Trek anticipates Checkpoint buyers will be riding, stock bikes will all come outfitted with 35mm-wide Schwalbe G-One tires — one of our favorite mixed-surface treads, and a bold move from a company that also has its own tire brand. Those tires will all come mounted to tubeless-ready Bontrager wheels with internal widths ranging from 17.5 to 19.5mm, although the requisite rim strips, valve stems, and sealant aren’t included. Only the Checkpoint SL models will have tubeless-ready versions of those Schwalbe tires, too; ALR owners will have to buy those as well if they want to go tube-free.

Interestingly, Trek has passed over the flared handlebars found on many gravel bikes these days, instead opting for standard road bike shapes. Some hardcore gravel aficionados may protest this decision, but it nevertheless seems like a wise choice given the diverse user base that Trek anticipates for the Checkpoint.

Trek Checkpoint bikepacking
Trek has designed the Checkpoint to accommodate a very broad range of usages, from short and quick lunch rides up to backpacking weekends. Photo: Kevin Scott Bachelor.

For now, Trek is capping higher-end Checkpoint options to the SL 6 model, built with a mechanical Shimano Ultegra groupset. Might we see fancier SLR versions in the future, or ones equipped with electronic drivetrains? Perhaps, but that will likely depend on how this initial introduction goes.

Trek will offer the new Checkpoint in six aluminum and four carbon models, including versions for women with dedicated spec. Checkpoint will also be available as bare framesets in both the carbon fiber and aluminum versions.

Retail prices for the complete bikes range from US$1,700 for the Checkpoint ALR 4, up to US$3,800 for the top-shelf Checkpoint SL 6. Gravel riders who would prefer to take the DIY approach can pick up the Checkpoint SL frameset for US$2,000, or the ALR version for just US$960.

Checking out on the Checkpoint

Three CyclingTips editors — myself, Neal Rogers, and Caley Fretz — have been racking up time on the top-end Checkpoint SL 6 over the past few weeks, and one word has consistently been coming up in our conversations about how the bike rides and feels: fun.

The lower bottom bracket and zippier front-end seem like a contradiction at first, but in practice, it works very well. The Checkpoint is nimble and agile, but thanks to that ground-hugging center of gravity, still feels stable when sliding through loose corners. It’s in no way jittery, and in fact, feels notably planted and composed.

That curious geometry also makes the Checkpoint feel more road bike-like when pounding the asphalt, and certainly less cumbersome relative to some longer-and-slacker gravel options on the market. We haven’t had the opportunity to switch to lighter-and-narrower tires just yet, but initial impressions are that the Checkpoint would be well-suited to that role.

Trek Checkpoint IsoSpeed
Trek’s IsoSpeed “decoupler” legitimately transforms the ride quality of any bike on which it’s equipped. The additional seat tube flex it allows is very noticeable.

Heading on to more demanding terrain highlights the effectiveness of the IsoSpeed mechanism. While the 35mm-wide tires and relatively spacious rim beds obviously provide most of the cushioning, you can still feel — and see — the effect that IsoSpeed has on seat tube flex. It’s still a bit disappointing that Trek didn’t include IsoSpeed up front as well (as on the Domane SLR endurance road bike), but the overall ride quality is still remarkably comfortable.

The stock 35mm-wide Schwalbe G-Ones provide reasonable float on softer surfaces, and still feel quick enough on harder ones. As promised, they’re a good compromise for the varied use the Checkpoint is likely to see, but I still wish Trek had been a bit bolder in this area. Having spent ample time on the 40c version of the G-One, I found that version to feel just as quick on asphalt, but provide better grip off-road. Granted, everyday riders might not share that progressive a viewpoint when it comes to mixed-terrain tires, however, so Trek’s conservative decision is perhaps the smart one.

All three of us have universally applauded the generous array of accessory mounts, which let users tune their setups to suit their own particular needs. Some might find the “Bento Box” bag to rub their legs when riding out of the saddle, but the beauty of the Checkpoint system is that it gives users the choice to outfit the bike however they see fit.

Trek Checkpoint tire clearance
Tire clearance is indeed generous on the new Trek Checkpoint. There’s more than enough room to fit a finger all around this 35c Schwalbe G-One.

While the handling of the Checkpoint seems spot-on, the front triangle could use a bigger dose of torsional rigidity for better predictability — a complaint I also noted on the recent review of Trek’s second-tier Madone aero road bike frameset. The softness likely contributes to the Checkpoint’s overall comfort, but that propensity to occasionally wind up, and then release, under side loads can be occasionally off-putting. It’s reasonable as is, but may be a bigger issue when the bike is heavily loaded.

As is, total weight of a 52cm Checkpoint SL 6 is 8.85kg (19.5lb), without pedals or accessories – not exactly svelte when judged against dedicated road bikes, but competitive for the class.

Setting the mood

Overall, though, Trek seems to have done a very good job on the Checkpoint, and all three of us have mentioned that it’s a bike we wouldn’t mind having in our own personal stables. I’ve always believed that the tenor of rides is strongly influenced by the style of bike you happen to be riding at the time. Conveniently for us, Trek didn’t have editors fly to some far-off location as is often the case for bike launches; instead, Trek brought the bikes to Colorado, and we not only rode on routes that were very familiar on that first day with the Checkpoint, but with people with whom we’ve ridden on countless occasions.

These sorts of rides are almost always the same: they start out tame, the speed steadily ramps up, and by the time it wraps up, the bunch has strung out to the point where people are rolling back in ones and twos, despite instructions at the outset to keep things together.

Trek Checkpoint
Trek dipped its toe into the gravel market with the Domane Gravel, but that model didn’t really have enough tire clearance, and some might argue that it didn’t have the right geometry, either. With Checkpoint, however, the company has make a much more concerted effort to address the burgeoning gravel market.

Maybe it was the semi-wintery weather on that day, or maybe it really was the case that no one was feeling particularly antsy. But on this day, the pace was mellow, there was lots of conversation, and we even made a point to pay a visit to the local wallaby (yes, someone has a wallaby in Colorado). Regardless, everyone had a good time, no one got dropped, and we never got buzzed by any cars.

Did the Checkpoint play a role in that? It’s impossible to say for sure, but I’m not going to write off the possibility, either. It’s still early days of testing, and we’ll reserve a more in-depth report and final ratings until we’re able to log more significant time on our test samples, but right now, it’s hard to argue with a bike that’s just plain fun to ride.

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