February 6, 2019

By Jonathan Fey

Editor's Note: No ride photos. Photos are by WRC Marketing Director Cate Swank of her own beloved Checkpoint SL 6.

It’s one of those cold-but-not-too-cold autumn days in Colorado. The sky is cloudless and the low angle of the sun makes everything seem brighter than it should be. The shadows are long even in the middle of the day and it is 10˚F colder in the shadows than it is in the sun.

I like to ride Golden Gate Canyon and its side roads on weekdays. It’s a nice change of pace from the standard Lookout-Mountain-and-back ride, but is not so far that you have to set aside an entire day should things go sideways. There are good places to turn back and enough connecting roads to route into figure eights that double back down wide, empty dirt roads.

I’m riding Trek’s Checkpoint SL 6, a carbon gravel bike, which clears (at least) 45mm tires, makes use of Trek’s signature seatpost compliance technology, IsoSpeed, and has strategically-placed bottle cage bosses for mounting bags and other gear. There's a review floating around online saying that the Checkpoint checks a lot of boxes, which is very cute, but it’s hard to argue otherwise. Trek has taken a circuitous route to delivering a dedicated gravel bike. Crossrip, Boone, Crockett, 920, and Domane have all hovered around the mark, so it’s nice to finally see Trek make a concerted push into one of the faster growing segments in the industry. Think Salsa’s Warbird or Specialized’s Diverge. These three bikes frequently come up in conversation together when we’re talking fast carbon gravel and all-road bikes.

But a gravel road bike is still a road bike. So how does it ride on pavement? It’s pretty fast, considering how capable it is in the rough stuff. The bike gets up to and carries momentum well as the pedals tick over. It does better under smooth, clean pedaling than explosive, stand-and-hammer acceleration. Compared to the 2014 Specialized Crux Elite Evo I’ve put through the wringer over the past two years, it’s just a hair less snappy on acceleration. I don’t know if I peg this to the bike’s geometry. It has a lower bottom bracket (76mm vs. 69mm), but the same chainstay length as my Crux at 425mm, which is fairly short for a gravel-specific bike. To achieve this, Trek has dropped the driveside chainstay dramatically in order to give clearance for the tires and the use of a compact double crankset. Trek uses their Stranglehold dropout system to allow riders to lengthen the wheelbase an extra 15mm for better tire clearance and increased stability when loaded or for rough, steep descents.

Headtube angles hover around 72 degrees; bigger sizes get slightly steeper angles while smaller ones are slacker. The fork offset is 49mm for the whole size run. In general, these numbers are fairly consistent with modern endurance geometry road bikes. It bears out in the saddle. The handling characteristics feel neutral and natural on pavement. I notice a tiny bit of wheel flop as I shift my weight and stand over the front end in steep, slow speed climbing. It doesn't help that I’ve put a slightly longer stem on either. The counterpoint of the vagueness at slow speed is the bike’s foot-sure handling at high speeds, which I’ll get to below.

The bike’s fit is generally relaxed, although not quite as compact and upright as Trek’s Domane. On the 54cm I find that I am able to ride for prolonged periods in the drops, and that the position on the hoods is fairly comfortable for me though it's higher than I'm used to. Trek has a tendency to spec longer reach handlebars than is fashionable, which I’ve found to occasionally make their bikes feel longer than they actually are. This is especially true with the bulkier, longer brake hoods found on hydraulic brake road levers like these hydro/mechanical ones.

I suspect this bike will serve the needs of people looking to do multi-day light-duty bikepacking trips on mildly rough gravel. The fork has mounting tabs for a low-rider style front rack, but not the more standard bottle cage spacing bosses for “anything” style cages. This seems like a missed opportunity to me, as things move toward light-duty bikepacking style touring. Trek has a proprietary system called the 720 fork rack mount system, but it’s the only clean way to get dry bags on your fork legs.

Spiffy bag, eh? Custom-made by WRC's own Max Kohen. Getcha one HERE

Riders looking to race endurance gravel events will be pleased by the bike’s willingness to carry momentum through the rougher stuff and its locked-in, stable handling. This bike might do okay in a cyclocross race here and there, but it lacks some of that snappy, get-up-and-go or the slow speed precision, which characterizes a dedicated ‘cross race bike.

There are less expensive options out there, but none that cover as many bases as Checkpoint does; this build kit rings in at $3,999.99. (The aluminum Checkpoint AL 3 comes in at the bottom of the range at $1,199.99, with a handful of configurations in between; two aluminum and one carbon frame options). Riders looking for a dedicated gravel bike, or even those just looking for a well-rounded road bike with good tire clearance and who also prioritize comfort over all-out speed should have Checkpoint on the short list. It’s a willing partner in a huge range of road pursuits, even if you don’t know what that road looks like yet.

My assessment of the bike in general boils down to this: Trek has made a really well balanced gravel and all-road bike in the Checkpoint. While it is neither remarkably light nor snappy, it rewards long, slow-burn efforts with steady speed. Its handling is predictable and stable, even though I didn’t push the bike to its limit in the dirt. While it’s not the fastest bike I’ve ever ridden, it doesn’t feel sluggish on pavement. It might be a little more inclined to long, sweeping dirt roads than steep, tight, and twisting ones, both in the up or down direction.

Checkpoint SL 6

The bike that was created specifically for the likes of Dirty Kanza, Land Run 100, and Trans Iowa is here to provide you with the most dialed in gravel riding platform available.