A beautiful balance of off-road features and mounts everywhere along with a stiff, precise front end that happily eats up road miles when asked to do so
- - Fender/mudguard mounts
- - Storage in the down tube
- - More mounts than you'll know what to do with
- - Plastic armour at the bottom of the down tube
- - Chosen gearing that reflects real-world needs
- - IsoSpeed decoupler
- - Threaded bottom bracket
- - Short stem for added stability means handlebar/knee interference
- - Lacks included protection for the chainstay
- - Detail behind the fork steerer collects water and is difficult to clean
Depending on how you define it, the gravel bike has been available for a while now. Not so long though that we've moved into a time of widespread agreement on what a gravel bike actually is. Unlike road bikes where categories are well established, gravel bikes are still being constantly redefined.
Take a look at our list of the best gravel bikes and you'll quickly see the diversity. There are adventure gravel bikes, gravel race bikes, bikepacking bikes, and all-road bikes represented. Even within those categories, you'll find variety in terms of 1x or 2x gearing, suspension, wheel size, and theories of geometry.
All that diversity means that every discussion of a new gravel bike has to start by defining what it is. For the 2022 model year, Trek re-imagined how it wanted to define its Checkpoint line-up. After 850 miles on the Trek Checkpoint SL 6 eTap, we are ready to discuss what that re-imagining looks like as well as where it might fit into your line-up of bikes.
Design and aesthetics
2022 brings a whole new design for the Trek Checkpoint lineup. Within that new lineup, there are three models of frameset available. The aluminium ALR sits at the bottom offering an adventure-ready bike at a less expensive price point. At the top is the SLR positioned as a gravel-race-ready bike. It uses the highest level of carbon, does without rack compatibility, gains a more advanced isoSpeed system, and loses mounting points on the fork. Sitting in the middle is the adventure focused SL., and it's here where the focus of this review will lie. Specifically, the Checkpoint SL6 eTap.
Design-wise, the main difference between the SLR and the SL is weight. Dropping that weight comes mainly courtesy of 700 series OCLV carbon fibre on the SLR while the SL makes do with the heavier 500 series layup. There's also likely to be some savings, however small, from the reduction of frame mounts on the SLR. Both bikes have a lot of mounts but the SLR lacks fork mounts for cages/bags, and the ability to mount a rear rack. Added together the changes mean the SLR frameset comes in 200 grams heavier at a weight of 1,150 grams.
As long as you can handle that little bit of extra weight, The SL level of the Checkpoint offers the same usability, and more compared to the SLR. The difference is subtle but this is the version that's along for the ride no matter how rowdy you want to get. If you want to add a dropper post there's nothing stopping you. If you decide to do some bikepacking, take advantage of the frame bag mounts under the downtube, the bento box mounts above, the fork mounts, and the multiple water bottle mounts. There's even internal frame storage for flat repair supplies and you can run 700c x 45mm or 650b x 2.1in tyres to handle whatever you want to throw at it. Don't worry about the downtube getting damaged either as Trek fits carbon armour to the underside.
Part of that willingness to go wherever asked is an update to the geometry across the whole line-up for 2022. In a trend borrowed from modern mountain bikes, Trek added extra length to the wheelbase and shortened the stem. The Checkpoint never feels sluggish but it's a stable bike when the terrain gets rough.
Along with being highly capable, the Trek Checkpoint SL is a gorgeous bike. The crimson/carbon smoke is a blood-red paint with depth. Under the sunlight, you can see metallic flakes throughout and there's a sense of movement as your eye catches it in different lights. The swoopy top tube shape and the detail at the head tube that leads into it helps reinforce that sense of movement. Sadly the days of gorgeous headtube badges are mostly gone but in this case there's not only a badge where you’d expect it but also another one on the top tube. Look near the seatpost and the word "Checkpoint" sits, slightly raised, in a gleaming chrome that is a joy to touch.
The very first time I rode the Trek Checkpoint SL 6 eTap, the most notable thing was how stiff the front end is. Look at the fork legs compared to other bikes and they appear somewhat massive. The effect is a feeling of precision. On a paved surface, it makes for a capable descender that feels stable and confidence-inspiring. On an unpaved surface, it makes choosing the right line feel like second nature.
Magnifying the effect is the softness at the rear that comes from the isoSpeed decoupler. Having spent extensive time with the Cannondale bikes and the Lefty front ends, I do find the stiff front paired with the soft rear to be marginally less capable on seriously bumpy terrain. Where the Trek gains ground back is with a geometry that genuinely feels better planted. The saddle feels less in-the-air and the rider feels more connected. It's helpful for a more well-rounded bike.
Over the time I've spent with the bike, that well-roundedness is what's come to the forefront more. In the past, I've preferred routes that were mostly off-road or completely on-road. If I take my gravel bike out for the day, I don't want to spend much time riding paved roads to get to the ride and the road bike never goes off-road. The Checkpoint has helped me see another vision: it feels like a bike that could go anywhere and I'd be happy to trade my road bike for it.
On the road that stiff front end feels fast. Riding through the winter, I added the Bontrager alloy mudguards and mounted a Flare RT from our list of the best bike lights. In this guise, it looks like a real contender for our list of best touring bikes and with its ability to mount a rear rack it probably should be on that list. It's more than that though: with the Bontrager GR1 40mm tyres mounted, the Checkpoint SL6 eTap is happy to ride until the pavement ends, and then beyond. It's just as stable and fast in slippery, rocky, muddy double track as it is on the ride to get there.
It's worth mentioning too that part of what makes the bike so versatile is how good SRAM Rival eTap XPLR AXS is and how well Trek has done with the gearing choices. A common choice from a variety of brands is to pair a 42-tooth front chainring with the 10-44 rear cassette. That's a workable road setup but when you find yourself in a low traction situation off-road, or with a loaded bike, it's under-geared. Trek has been very smart to stick with a 40T front chainring that allows you to stay seated when climbing. In this configuration, I would happily trade a 2x groupset, even on my road bike.
It's also the most affordable wireless groupset available, and helps keep the price of the Checkpoint SL 6 down, ensuring it is also a contender for anyone trying to find the best budget gravel bikes.
One of the promises of gravel bikes has always been versatility. Not every gravel bike actually succeeds in that respect though, but the Trek Checkpoint SL6 eTap is an option that does. It pulls a little bit from the very edge of off-road capability and it makes a bike that feels exciting to ride fast on, or off, the road.
You can set it up with fast road tyres and happily spend a day fighting for position in a group ride, or you could load it up, mount 650b wheels, and spend a week bikepacking through remote countryside. Alternatively, take it to a gravel race, and it'll be ready to ride without needing to add, or change, anything about the way it comes from Trek.
The one thing that I did change was the short stem. The 80mm stem included on my size isn't a mistake, rather it's a deliberate choice to help add stability. I wasn’t a fan of that one detail. I find it makes no noticeable difference to go to 100mm but it did help me stop hitting my knees each time I stood to climb.
Tech Specs: Trek Checkpoint SL6 eTap
- Price: £3,850 / $4,129.99 / €4,299 / $5,499.99 AUS
- Frame: 500 Series OCLV Carbon, IsoSpeed, internal cable routing, downtube storage door, 3S chain keeper, T47 BB, rack and fender/mudguard mounts, integrated frame bag mounts, flat mount disc, dropper post compatible, 142x12mm thru axle
- Size: 54cm
- Weight: 9.05 kg / 19.96 lbs (size 56)
- Groupset: SRAM RIVAL XPLR AXS
- Crankset: SRAM Rival XPLR crank; 40T
- Cassette: SRAM Rival XPLR 10-44T
- Wheels: Bontrager Paradigm Comp 25, Tubeless Ready, 25mm rim width
- Handlebar: Bontrager Elite Gravel, 42cm width
- Stem: Bontrager Pro, 31.8mm, Blendr compatible, 7 degree, 80mm length
- Seatpost: Bontrager carbon, 27.2mm, 8mm offset, 330mm length
- Saddle: Bontrager P3 Verse Comp, steel rails, 145mm width
- Tyres: Bontrager GR1 Team Issue, Tubeless Ready, 700x40c
- Max tyre size: 700x45c / 650x2.1in
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Josh hails from the Pacific Northwest of the United States but would prefer riding through the desert than the rain. He will happily talk for hours about the minutia of cycling tech but also has an understanding that most people just want things to work. He is a road cyclist at heart and doesn't care much if those roads are paved, dirt, or digital. Although he rarely races, if you ask him to ride from sunrise to sunset the answer will be yes.
Weight: 137 lb.
Rides: Orbea Orca Aero, Cannondale Topstone Lefty, Cannondale CAAD9, Trek Checkpoint, Priority Continuum Onyx
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