2022 Trek Checkpoint gravel bike review: Longer, but not slacker
Major geometry changes make for a new personality that’s rowdier, but also perhaps more polarizing.
Major geometry changes make for a new personality that’s rowdier, but also perhaps more polarizing.
Trek’s original Checkpoint was a runaway sales success, offering very good capability on mixed terrain while retaining the nimbleness and agility of road and cyclocross bikes that many nascent gravel riders enjoyed. But as popular as that bike family has been, gravel bikes have continued to veer further into proper off-road terrain since then, and the new second-generation Checkpoint has evolved to keep up with those trends.
By far, the biggest change is in the new Checkpoint’s frame geometry.
Gravel bikes have grown steadily longer up front, and Trek has definitely hopped on that bandwagon here — albeit in its own way. Reach and front center dimensions on the second-generation Checkpoint have grown by about 2 cm across the board, and a 10 mm bump in chainstay length has added further to the total wheelbase (the old Stranglehold adjustable rear dropouts are gone).
Stem length and handlebar reach each decrease by 1 cm to maintain the same riding position as before, and overall stack dimensions have changed by no more than 6 mm.
Head tube angles have slackened only very slightly, but that’s coupled with a drop in fork rake from 49 mm to 45 mm. Trail dimensions have grown as a result for more steering stability, but the trail figures still aren’t too crazy. Whereas the old Checkpoint was quite road-like with trail measurements ranging from 59-66 mm, depending on size, the new ones sit at 65-74 mm.
Down below, bottom bracket drop remains unchanged at 74-78 mm, depending on size.
Overall, the intent is to add some stability to the Checkpoint while still retaining some of its trademark agility — and it’s also somewhat telling that the axle-to-crown length of the revised fork intentionally doesn’t account for switching to a suspension fork.
Interestingly, claimed maximum tire size remains unchanged at 700×45 mm (40 mm-wide tires come stock across the board), although 650b setups finally get the official Trek seal of approval, at least for tires up to 2.1″-wide.
Integrated into the down tube of carbon fiber Checkpoint models is the same cleverly integrated storage compartment as is already found in the Domane SLR and multiple Trek mountain bikes. A single lever secures the smartphone-sized hatch, and there’s enough room inside for an included tool roll with compartments for an inner tube, CO2 cartridge and inflator, a tire lever, and a bit more. Directly attached to the underside of the hatch is a holder for a Bontrager mini-tool, too, although it’s missing a chain tool and there’s no obvious dedicated location to add one, either, so you’ll want to source a compact model yourself.
If you’re open to carrying the repair items somewhere else, I can also say that I’ve done the hard research to confirm that the down tube is sufficiently spacious — and the hatch opening sufficiently wide — for you to stuff an actual burrito inside (just don’t forget it’s in there).
Cable routing is slightly revised from the previous Checkpoint, and arguably an improvement over some of the bonkers fully-internal setups we see on many other drop-bar bikes these days.
Similar to what Trek has already done on multiple Madone and Domane models, brake hoses and derailleur lines now enter the frame through openings in the upper headset cover. The handlebar and stem are otherwise completely normal items, though, so while the routing is tidier than it used to be (which can actually come in handy if you like to run handlebar bags), it’s not quite as much of a maintenance headache as more fully integrated setups.
Trek has also equipped those headset cover ports with some rubber gaskets, unlike the more gaping holes on the Madone and Domane. This should keep out a lot of dirt and debris, but water will still trickle in there, so keep that in mind if you tend to wash your bikes frequently, especially since headset bearings will require you to fully disconnect all of the control lines.
So just how popular was the original Checkpoint? Popular enough that Trek saw fit to add a third variant to the existing SL carbon fiber and ALR aluminum versions.
The new top-tier Checkpoint SLR is aimed more at gravel racing, built with a lighter-weight OCLV 700 carbon fiber blend and a new version of Trek’s Top Tube IsoSpeed pseudo-rear suspension system, complete with an integrated no-cut seatmast and carbon fiber topper. This Top Tube IsoSpeed variant isn’t adjustable like it is on the Madone SLR or Domane SLR, but Trek says it’s been tuned to be on the cushier side of things (similar to the current Domane SLR when its slider is set nearly to full-soft).
Moreover, since this new Top Tube IsoSpeed design’s flex patterns aren’t tied to frame size, smaller frames can be made more compliant than larger ones, which is the opposite of what you get with the original seat tube-based IsoSpeed (since longer tubes flex more than shorter ones). An integrated elastomer damper promises to minimize bounciness, too.
Going along with that racing bent, the new Checkpoint SLR also features mounts for up to four water bottles (three inside the main triangle on larger sizes) and a top tube feed bag, but the rear rack mounts of the first-generation Checkpoint SL are gone, along with any sort of carrying capacity on the fork. Front and rear fender mounts are still standard, though, to help make the Checkpoint SLR better suited to all-weather duty.
Claimed weight for an unpainted 56 cm Checkpoint SLR frame without hardware is 950 g.
The second-tier Checkpoint SL carries on with the same mid-range OCLV 500 carbon fiber as the original model, along with the same seat tube-based IsoSpeed pseudo-rear suspension design. Whereas that first-generation Checkpoint SL also had a no-cut integrated seatmast, though, this newer Checkpoint SL switches to a conventional 27.2 mm round seatpost.
That also makes it compatible with internally routed dropper seatposts should you decide to run one, which is in keeping with Trek’s intent for this to be the “sendier” of the two carbon Checkpoint models. This one also gets additional rear rack mounts and accessory mounts on the fork blades for more carrying capacity should your definition of “sendy” comprise just heading deeper into the wilderness for longer periods of time.
Claimed frame weight is 1,150 g for the Checkpoint SL, or about 200 g heavier than the Checkpoint SLR.
Rounding out the new Checkpoint family is the aluminum Checkpoint ALR, TIG-welded from Trek’s hydroformed and butted Alpha 300 aluminum tubing. Aimed at gravel riders on tighter budgets — or even commuters who just want something a little sportier — this one retains front and rear fender mounts, rear rack mounts, fork bottle mounts, a top tube feed bag mount, and up to four bottle mounts on the front triangle. Unfortunately, though, the down tube storage compartment doesn’t make the cut here.
Claimed weight for an unpainted 56 cm Checkpoint ALR frame is 1,415 g.
Now, you might be asking yourself at this point why Trek hasn’t incorporated the Front IsoSpeed mechanism from the Domane SLR into the new Checkpoints. After all, if a big part of the game when it comes to gravel bikes is compliance, shouldn’t a softer ride be better?
Well, yes. However, Trek says that while Front IsoSpeed pays comfort dividends on something like the Domane SLR with its narrower tires and higher inflation pressures, it was too stiff to make enough of a difference with the Checkpoint’s larger and softer tires to justify the additional cost and weight.
One thing that did make it into every new Checkpoint, though, are new T47 oversized threaded bottom bracket shells in place of the old BB90 press-fit design. This admittedly adds a few grams, but it’s unlikely many people will complain much. As compared to BB90, this setup should be far less prone to creaking and will be easier to service, and it also now finally allows for oversized crankset spindles.
Trek is offering the new Checkpoint in a wide range of models, including four Checkpoint SLR versions, three Checkpoint SLs, and one Checkpoint ALR. All three will be available as framesets — yay! — and it’s expected that the Checkpoint SLR will also be offered through Trek’s Project One custom program.
Models, basic build information, pricing, and claimed weights (for a 56 cm size) are as follows, with all models expected to be available at Trek retailers immediately (at least in some capacity).
Going along with the new Checkpoint is a trio of new bikepacking bags from Bontrager. There’s an oversized handlebar bag and saddle bag — both with generous 9-liter capacities — and also a frame bag that’s offered in six (six!) different sizes for direct-mount attachment to the new Checkpoint’s dedicated threaded fittings. The frame bags can still be installed with traditional straps for other bikes, too.
Bontrager isn’t billing any of the bags as being waterproof, but the handlebar bag and saddle bag are both made of waterproof materials and use waterproof zippers, and the roll top format mimics the dry bags often used in rafting and kayaking. Both of those bags attach with conventional straps and buckles, and both also feature multiple strapping points if you need to lash on additional gear.
Light mounts are on hand, too, and the handlebar bag even has a dedicated pocket and hose port for a 1.5-liter Hydrapak bladder. Supplemental pockets are included throughout to help organize smaller items, and — dear god, thank you — the inside of the frame bag is lined with high-viz material so you’re not trying to dig around inside a black hole for your stuff.
Retail price for the handlebar bag is US$100, while the saddle bag and handlebar bag both retail for US$120. Prices for other regions is to be confirmed.
Trek delivered a production Checkpoint SLR 6 eTap sample to me for testing, built with a SRAM Rival AXS XPLR 1x wireless electronic groupset, Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V wide-profile carbon clinchers wrapped with 40 mm-wide Bontrager GR1 tires (set up tubeless), and finished with a Bontrager P3 Verse Elite saddle, Bontrager Pro forged aluminum stem, and a Bontrager Pro IsoCore VR-SF carbon handlebar. For my 52 cm size, actual weight was 8.65 kg (19.07 lb) without pedals or accessories — which, it’s perhaps worth noting is exactly what Trek claims for this model in a 56 cm size.
I mentioned earlier that the original Checkpoint has been a huge sales success for Trek, and now that I’ve been riding this one for the past few weeks, I have little reason to think these new versions will be any different.
As with other bikes with similarly long front ends, the revamped Checkpoint is easier and more confidence-inspiring to ride off-road on even moderately steep or loose terrain than before. Granted, pushing the front wheel 2 cm further out doesn’t sound like much on paper, but it’s often the difference between mild understeer before the tire regains traction, or jackknifing over the bars.
Overall, the front end of this second-generation Checkpoint feels calmer and more settled in those situations, and there’s less thought and skill involved in navigation tricky ground. And assuming you’re comfortable exploring the limits of just how much you can push that front end, the changes also make for more speed.
Low-speed handling definitely takes a hit, however. Although the geometry of that original Checkpoint would now be considered pretty old-school, one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about it is its road-like agility. It was amusingly quick and nimble, and with room for 45 mm-wide knobbies, a skilled rider could have a blast throttling that thing in the woods. The more toned-down reflexes of this new Checkpoint dampens some of that dartiness, though, and that longer wheelbase and longer rear end feel slower to come around a corner when it’s tight and technical. Nevertheless, hair-trigger reflexes and borderline nervousness are not what most mainstream riders are looking for in a gravel bike, so I’d say Trek made the right decision here. Plus, if you really want quicker handling with (somewhat) fatter tires, there’s still the new Boone.
Given Trek’s stated goal that the Checkpoint SLR is the most race-oriented of the three new Checkpoint models, it’s no surprise that it feels stiff and solid underfoot in terms of pedaling efficiency, too. It’s not on the same level as the company’s ultra-efficient Emonda, but still on the upper-middle end of the spectrum as far as carbon gravel bikes go in general.
In terms of ride quality, I found the new non-adjustable Top Tube IsoSpeed setup on the Checkpoint SLR to be a little perplexing.
Granted, it’s now been a while since I spent a lot of time on the first-generation Checkpoint, but I have very fond memories of how cushy that older seat tube-based IsoSpeed seatmast felt on rough ground. It was basically a magic carpet of compliance, suspending you on a virtual cloud when things got bumpy.
Trek says this fancier Top Tube IsoSpeed version offers an even more comfortable ride, but I found it to feel firmer — also less bouncy, mind you, but firmer and less dramatically different from a conventional telescoping seatpost nonetheless. And apparently, I’m not alone.
“The little elastomer in the SLR’s top tube unit damps the motion a bit,” explained Trek road product marketing manager Anders Ahlberg. “I’ve found that in testing bikes with and without damping, the bikes with damping feel less compliant just because they’re less bouncy.”
On the plus side, the perception that the rear end is firmer than on the original Checkpoint SL makes for a more balanced feel, and Trek has done a superb job of hiding all of that extra hardware inside the frame. Especially with the matte black finish of my loaner, you barely notice there’s anything unusual going on at the seat cluster area. Combined with the only modestly dropped chainstays and wholly conventional looking seatstays and front triangle, the whole profile of the Checkpoint looks about as classic as something like this can probably be.
I’ve got very mixed feelings on the revamped cable routing used here. On the one hand, it’s undeniably tidier looking, it helps keeps the lines from interfering with handlebar bags, and since none of the lines run inside either the handlebar or stem, it’s easy to swap both of those components or move them around. And kudos to Trek to at least trying to seal up the hose ports in the upper headset cover instead of just leaving them as gaping holes (like on the Madone SLR and Domane SLR) that practically invite water and debris into the frame.
Those ports aren’t watertight, though, so riders who wash their bikes regularly will want to exercise caution, particularly since swapping headset bearings will be a monumental pain in the butt. In general, though, if Trek engineers felt like they absolutely had to implement some sort of semi-internal routing scheme on the new Checkpoint, this is a lot less crappy than how many other brands do it.
As I’ve found with every other bike I’ve ridden with this feature — on road or off — the new down tube storage is brilliant. There’s enough room inside the down tube for a spare inner tube, tire levers, multiple CO2 cartridges and an inflator head (or a mini-pump, depending on the model), and even some snacks or an extra layer, depending on the size of your frame. The included tool wrap makes it easy to organize all of that stuff, and also keeps it from rattling inside. The hatch fits very securely, too, and yet is easy to access with a single lever flip.
I do wish that Trek could find a lower-profile way of attaching the multi-tool to the underside of the hatch, though. As it is, it impinges on the interior space more than I’d like, and if you’re not careful with how you pack the down tube, it causes the hatch to bow outward a little, which compromises the seal and potentially allows water and debris to get inside the frame.
Speaking of which, those new Bontrager Adventure bags seem to be a nice option if you’re interested in taking the Checkpoint on a multi-day trip (and I’ll admit that I was only able to do a test run with the bags loaded up with gear, not an actual overnighter). They fit securely — the strap-free frame bag is especially nice — and don’t wiggle around too much on the trail, and the front and rear bags have plenty of capacity for camping gear, especially if you follow Trek’s guidance and carry your tent poles inside the frame bag instead of the saddle bag. Add-ons like extra layers are easy to attach to the strapping points on the front and rear bags, too.
I do wish that Bontrager had incorporated some one-way valves into the saddle and handlebar packs, though. Although they’re not advertised as proper waterproof bags, Bontrager still builds these with waterproof materials and zippers, and it’s tricky to compress the bags since air essentially has nowhere to go. I also had to get pretty creative in mounting the front bag since the bottom would otherwise drag on the tire on my 52 cm test bike, so riders on smaller sizes or running lower handlebar heights in general should be wary.
There aren’t too many surprises as far as the build kit on this particular bike goes.
The SRAM Rival AXS XPLR wireless electronic groupset is just as good as it’s been the other multiple times I’ve ridden it now, with quick and reliable shifts, ample range from that new 10-44T cassette, and plenty of power from the hydraulic disc brakes with excellent control to boot. The downsized lever bodies feel great in your hands, and so far, I haven’t regretted not being able to plug in any remote shift buttons. It’s still rather heavy stuff, mind you, but in most cases, that doesn’t detract too much from the overall performance, and probably not enough that most everyday riders will care.
I’ve also spent plenty of time with these Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V carbon wheels on this and other bikes, and they’re honestly some of my favorites. They’re appropriately wide at 25 mm between the bead hooks, they feel fast and solid, and the 108-tooth freehub mechanism is very quick to engage (although it’s also quite loud and buzzy). The molded plastic tubeless rim strip incorporates beadlock ridges for a very secure hold that’s still field serviceable, and I’ve found it to hold up much, much better over time than any tape I’ve used. They’ve been quite durable, too, shrugging off the various times I’ve bottomed the tires out on the sharp rocks that litter my local trails.
I also give high marks to the Bontrager Versa saddle for its accommodating shape, supportive padding, and built-in accessory mount underneath the shell, and to the neat Bontrager Pro forged aluminum stem. That stem is nothing special in terms of traditional performance metrics like weight and stiffness, but it’s compatible with Bontrager’s broad array of Blendr faceplate-based accessory mounts to keep things neat and tidy up front, even if you want to run a computer and a front flasher or camera. Only Bontrager, Garmin, and SRM (?!) computers are supported for now, although other 3D-printed options are offered through third parties.
I have more mixed feelings on the new handlebar shape, however.
As mentioned earlier, Bontrager opted to take a centimeter of reach out of both the handlebar and stem to offset the 2 cm increase in front-end length. This makes sense in concept, but the shorter 75 mm reach of the Bontrager Pro IsoCore VR-SF carbon bar is mated to a comparatively deep 128 mm of drop with a surprisingly traditional large-radius bend. I normally love classic-bend bars on the road, but this bend just feels weird to me and I was never able to find a comfy spot for my hands in the drops.
Regular readers of CyclingTips will know that I’m generally a big fan of how gravel bike geometry has been evolving over the past couple of years (and I suspect many riders with more of a mountain bike background would agree). The whole longer-slacker-lower thing offers the same benefits on gravel as it does for mountain bikes, and Trek wisely hasn’t gone too extreme in that direction. The new Checkpoint is a more capable bike than the one it replaces, and it’s easier to ride fast on unpaved surfaces, too.
That said, one of the things I really enjoyed about the old Checkpoint was its nimbler personality. It was maybe a bit more of a handful as compared to more modern gravel bikes with new-school geometry when things got rowdier — and there was the small issue of toe overlap, too — but there was nevertheless an element of playfulness and agility that I can’t help but miss.