Trek Checkpoint SL 7 Review: First Impressions

Here we go. Gravel race bike first impressions. Or maybe it’d be good to qualify. Wait. This isn’t a race blog. It’s gravel grinding for the everyday. What gives with the race bike? Just like that. Abandoning The Gravel Guide values. Did I forget to mention I was raised an unprincipled youth? Well, my immoral everyday just got a whole lot racier. I have acquired a 2020 Trek Checkpoint SL 7 for long-term loan (semi-permanent possession?) as a perk at my full time gig as bicycle bell-boy. 

Considering my first impressions are framed by my previous experience, the best approach to this review is probably by way of comparison. So let’s begin with a little background: a brief history of my gravel grinding. My gravel rides have been primarily on my gravel-monster, a kind of frankenbike build (check out the build here) that has gone through a couple of iterations. These were mish-mash bikes, not designed as drop bar gravel bikes, but manipulated into that role by the artist’s deft hand (gross). And they were great. Fun to build. Fun to ride. Versatile. Unique. I finished the first build in early 2018, and I have yet to set out on a ride I didn’t enjoy. I’ve ridden thousands of miles on Palouse gravel in relative comfort in a wide range of conditions. No complaints.

OK. OK. On to the good stuff. For my first ride on the Checkpoint I did a 28 mile loop here on the Palouse (see the route details here) to get a good feel for how the bike handles in my typical riding conditions. And it handles. Boy, does it handle! The immediate differences that I noticed riding are related to the position, which is obviously quite racey, especially compared to the frankenbike. It’s rather easy to climb on and off. Which is nice. And it also feels a bit more stable. This is all likely due to the fact that in the saddle, I’m much lower to the ground. The bottom bracket is much lower than my previous bike, and the frame is a bit smaller in general, and so every contact point on the bike is significantly lower. Bike feels low. Review done. You’re welcome, world. 

Nah! It’s also in an entirely different class for its balance between compliance and stiffness. It’s smooth. Much smoother than the gravel-monster (which you may remember I had no complaints about, but now is continuing to compare rather unfavorably to the racey-race bike), and somehow much snappier, too. I’ve never noticed a significant amount of flex in the old mish-mash, but now that I have something else to compare, it feels like a soggy noodle. Exaggeration aside, it is an unusual sensation to stand up to stomp up a hill, and have the bike feel perfectly solid under my feet, and then to rocket down the other side over a rough surface without feeling jarred by the bumps. I guess this is a carbon frame. And Trek’s IsoSpeed technology. And carbon cranks. And carbon wheels. And fancy tires. Yes, this is all the things!

Speaking of tires, I’ve previously been riding on an array of tires in various widths, mostly nothing slimmer than a 45mm and all the way up to some big ol’ 2 inch mountain bike rubber, and I’ve rarely felt like I had more tire than I wanted for any given ride. So I had some reservations about running the comparatively svelte 40mm Bontrager GR1 tires that come stock on the Checkpoint. I was pleasantly surprised. They feel fast on the hard packed dirt (as expected), but still stable on the baseball sized shale railroad ballast, or whatever they drop on the roads out here. The narrower tires do make for a slight but noticeable increase in squirreliness on the deeper loose stuff, but that’s a given. 

I have a suspicion that the surprising effectiveness I’m feeling in tire performance (and likely much of the smoothness described earlier) is probably owed as much to the wheels as anything else. I’ve never owned a pair of carbon wheels, and these Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V wheels are lighter and wider (and likely much more laterally stiff) than any wheel I’ve previously ridden. Common wisdom (and I imagine some serious sciency stuff) states that wider rims better support wider tires and generally improve the performance characteristics. I could do some research and maybe test out some theories by swapping the GR1s onto the old gravel-monster, but this isn’t GCN. I think instead, I’ll just ride.

I should probably also touch on the wireless electronic shifting. The whole drivetrain, in fact, is a stark contrast between the new and old. The Checkpoint is equipped with SRAM’s new Force eTap AXS 1×12 groupset with a 40T chainring up front, and 10-50T Eagle cassette in the rear. The gravel-mutt, on the other hand, had an old mountain 3×9 drivetrain and bar end shifters. We’re talking decades of technological leaps here. Ironically, I may have lost a little range in terms of gears. But I’ve gained much more efficient performance in every other way. It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s smooth. It’s simple. It shifts. Not much more to say. Other than perhaps to mention that my 2.5 hour ride appeared to have no significant impact on the fully charged battery (good news), and that updating and adjusting functionality for the system via phone app is kind of cool.

Another difference to highlight is the brake system. The Checkpoint SL 7 has SRAM Force flat-mount hydraulic disc brakes with 160mm rotors. The old bike has some antique cable actuated disc jobbies. If you’ve done any mountain biking, then chances are, like me, you’ve ridden plenty of bikes with hydraulic disc brakes (less excitement here). Obviously the hydraulic brakes perform better than the cable actuated. There’s more fine control, and more stopping power with less effort. This is my first time riding much with hydraulic road brakes, however. And I’m pretty thrilled that single digit operation is still quite possible from the hoods even with the much less optimal (biomechanically speaking) grip and lever position.

To sum up, allow me first to clarify: this is not a bike I would likely ever buy for myself, in large part due to the fact that bicycle bell-boys are expected to be alive to earn a wage (food>bikes hashpoundpriorities). Also, the bike is primarily designed and outfitted for a particular kind of riding that isn’t my chief interest. I don’t care race. Moreover, it’s a bit of a confused bike. Trek markets it as an all round adventure bike—it has hidden fender and rack mounts and a nice wide range cassette—but it’s geometry is far from what you would expect for a multi-day adventure rig, and the gearing isn’t quite adequate for loaded climbing. Sure it has ample tire clearance, but it’s not even the more relaxed endurance race geometry of Trek’s Domane. It’s long and low like a typical road race bike. That being said, having the ability to play with the latest and greatest technology has its appeal. And in the end, it’s a bike. And make no mistake, it is fun.

EDIT:  I forgot to mention weight! What kind of bike nerd am I? The 56 cm Checkpoint weighs in at just under 20 lbs. That’s 6 or 7 pounds lighter than the gravel-mutt.