Does the ultimate gravel bike exist?
Does the ultimate gravel bike exist? (Photo: JJAG Media)

Testing the All New Trek Checkpoint

I put Trek's newest gravel bike to the test on a 180-mile bikepacking trip through the Sonoran Desert. Here's how it held up.

Does the ultimate gravel bike exist?
JJAG Media(Photo)

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At this year’s edition of the Outside Annual Bike Test, the Trek Domane SLR 6 Gravel was one of the most roundly praised all-road bikes. Testers loved the comfortable ride provided by the dual IsoSpeed decouplers, which use bearing pivots at the seatpost and head tube to allow the saddle and bars to move vertically and absorb road vibrations. “If the Domane Gravel had clearance for wider tires than its 35c Schwalbes, it would have ridden away with Gear of the Year honors,” I wrote. But since the bike was effectively the same frame as last year’s SLR7 Disc, just with fatter tires shoehorned in, it felt more like leveraging existing technology than a step forward.

So, a few weeks ago, when Trek announced the Checkpoint, which appeared to be a gravel-specific platform based on the Domane, I was exultant. This bike had the potential to be the definitive all-surface road bike: light enough for full road duty, compliant enough for all-day rides on pavement or dirt, and with huge tire clearance (45 millimeters on 700c). When the bike I’d lined up for an upcoming weeklong bikepacking trip in Organ Mountains National Monument fell through, Trek saved the day by rushing out a Checkpoint SL6 ($3,800) for me to test instead. Based on all the Domanes I’d ridden over the years, and especially the gravel-specific model we loved so much in January, I expected that this bike might turn out to be today’s definitive word in gravel machines.

In black-on-black livery, the all-carbon bike certainly looks promising, with a full Shimano Ultegra group set, Stranglehold dropouts for chainstay adjustments between 425 and 440 milimeters and easy singlespeed setups, and mounts for damn near everything from a triple cage on the down tube to fenders and racks to a feed bag on the top tube. The 35c Schwalbe G-One Allround tires, ostensibly a pretty wide tread, look diminutive in the frame because there’s so much clearance. And the cap-style carbon seat mast, topped off with Bontrager’s pretty comfy Montrose saddle, promised to provide excellent vertical compliance.

However, two things about the bike immediately jumped out at me. First, the rear IsoSpeed decoupler was the fixed variety, not the adjustable one that allows you to fine-tune firmness, as on the Domane we’d ridden. My apprehensions were allayed after Trek confirmed that the fixed setting was the softest they make, which is what I desire on a gravel platform. More worryingly, Trek had foregone the front decoupler for a fixed head tube. I was also surprised that the bike came with alloy bars, not Bontrager’s cushy IsoCore carbon variety that are designed to blunt road chatter. These omissions read like cost-saving measures, and it’s true that at $3,800, this top-spec, 19.1-pound Checkpoint represents very solid value.

The Checkpoint carried several days of provisions, including tent, sleeping bag and pad, food, and eight liters of water without drama.
The Checkpoint carried several days of provisions, including tent, sleeping bag and pad, food, and eight liters of water without drama. (JJAG Media)

In Organ Pipe, I loaded the Checkpoint with several days of provisions, including eight liters of water, tent, food, and sleeping bag and pad, and set off. Though my packs weren’t tailor-made for the bike, all the mounts were welcome and the fairly substantial load hauled fine.

The roads in the monument range from smooth laterite to choppy dirt washboard, and even some passages of rubble and sand. I’d also see around 30 miles of pavement over the next few days. Immediately, the rear end of the bike, with the decoupler, felt as soft and comfortable as I’d expected. Even in the short chainstay setting, the Checkpoint was plenty stable for the hilly country.

The front end of the bike, however, was as stiff as a race machine, chopping around on the dusty roads and sending reverberations through my hands, arms, and neck. I was running 33 PSI in the tubeless tires, which I generally consider to be comfortably soft for 35c, but the front of the bike, including alloy bars, rattled me like an out-of-balance washing machine. To be fair, it’s not that the Checkpoint was more rigid than any other carbon bike would be on this rugged terrain; rather, having ridden the Domane Gravel, I just wanted the softer ride of the decoupler and carbon bars.

Over five days, I plowed the Checkpoint through 180 miles of hot, dry, rugged Sonoran Desert and was mostly happy. Overall, this is a very good bike, as I’ve come to expect from Trek. Detailing is impeccable, and spec is top-notch (other than the Schwalbe tires, which landed me with four flats, more than double in our two-week, 50-bike test, meaning this rubber may feel great, but it’s not durable enough for the desert). All the mounts, as well as the adjustable chainstay length, are a true boon.

That said, I can’t help but feel like Trek has missed the mark a touch with the Checkpoint. I was a little surprised to find that the bike is actually lower and longer than the Domane, whereas I would have hoped for a bit more relaxed and stable fit. For me, the ultimate gravel bike will not only be as light and maneuverable as a road bike and as comfortably cast as an endurance machine, but it will also check off three other metrics:

  1. It will have ample tire clearance.
  2. The rear end will be supple and easy on the back.
  3. The front will be just as compliant as the rear end.

Most bikes today, including the Checkpoint, hit two of those checkmarks, but not all three. I like to joke that the ultimate gravel bike would combine the rear end of a Trek Domane with the Future Shock front end of a Specialized Diverge. Fanciful fusions aside, the fact is the door is open to a company that can combine big tire clearance with a comfy ride, both front and rear.

The Checkpoint is a good bike, and if it fits and you’re in the market for a reasonably affordable mixed-surface machine that can double as a roadie and commuter, it’s definitely worth considering. However, Trek owns—in the IsoSpeed decouplers—the ability to make a gravel machine that isn’t just on a par with everything else, but the benchmark in both performance and comfort, and the Checkpoint doesn’t rise to that standard. Trek says it left out the front decoupler both as a cost-saving measure and to minimize complexity, to which some gravel racers are averse. However, having ridden the Domane Gravel with 35c tires and also having done a fair bit of gravel racing myself, I’d say the Checkpoint’s stiff front end holds it back from greatness. I’m sure the bike would feel more compliant with fatter tires—and the wide clearance is welcome. But not unlike with my time aboard the Domane Gravel, I finished my ride on the Checkpoint feeling that Trek still hasn’t achieved its potential.

­­Perhaps it’s just a matter of time.

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