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Gravel Gear

Bike of the year: Trek Checkpoint SL 5

Gravel bikes abound, but this one checks all the boxes, and at a great price.

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Seemingly every bike brand out there has at least one gravel bike now, and for good reason: gravel riding is a blast. You do it away from cars, and riding gravel offers ample self-modulation on how social or competitive you want the experience to be.

Within this crowded category, Trek’s Checkpoint SL 5 is our bike of year because it checks all the boxes: It is fun, fast, comfortable, practical, adjustable, versatile, and well-priced. There are cooler gravel bikes out there. Boutique makers are doing some gorgeous and innovative work these days. But a frame from a small builder will run you more than this entire bike costs. And, yes, there are lighter gravel bikes with higher-end components.

But the Checkpoint SL 5 covers the broadest swath of riders at the best price with the most complete package. Here’s why:

Carbon frame with smart details

Trek has aluminum frames for less money. We think the carbon IsoSpeed model is worth the cash, for both the weight-to-stiffness ratio as well as the built-in flex for comfort you get with the effective pivot at the junction of top tube and seat tube/seatmast. There are no suspension parts to maintain or worry about; just pedal and enjoy the smooth ride.

The frame is packed with smart details for gravel riding, yet these details do not scream for attention or get in the way. For starters, you have mounts for four (four!) bottle cages, plus mounts for a box or bag on the top tube. You have low-profile mounts for racks and front and rear fenders. You’ve got sliding rear dropouts; should your chain break in the middle of a race or the middle of nowhere, you can cobble together a singlespeed to get home. (You can also adjust your wheelbase for normal geared riding, too.)

Trek includes other handy details in the frame, too, like a bash guard under the down tube and internal routing guides, so your mechanic doesn’t go crazy when overhauling the thing.

The frame and fork can handle tires up to 45mm wide, with plenty of room on either side.

Geometry-wise, the bike is long and low for all-day stability, but it isn’t super slack and sleepy like some gravel bikes. So, you can swap in road slicks and, presto, you’ve got a sturdy road bike.

A utilitarian parts package

The Checkpoint comes in a variety of models, and Trek dressed the 2020 SL 5 in Shimano 105 with alloy Bontrager wheels and cockpit, plus Schwalbe G-One tires.

I’m a big fan of Shimano’s GRX gravel group, but the 105 road group as spec’ed here offered huge versatility. With a 50/34 compact crank paired to an 11-34 cassette, you have 1:1 “jeep” gearing for creeping up the steeps, and a decent 50×11 for pushing the pace on pavement. Sure, you’re missing out on the clutch derailleur featured on GRX and some of SRAM’s offerings, but a 105 rear derailleur can do gravel just fine.

While one-by gravel bikes look cool, it’s hard to beat the performance, the range, and the small steps of a good two-by system — especially if you’re looking to do double duty on pavement. This is a rider preference thing, and this rider loves Shimano two-by.

Further, Shimano’s hydraulic brakes, even at the 105 level, are superb.

The Bontrager wheels are no-nonsense 28-spoke affairs that can easily be set up tubeless with Trek’s plastic strips. At 17mm internal, they aren’t exactly modern-gravel wide, but they get the job done. Also, can we talk levers? While it’s en vogue to ditch wheel levers for the svelte look of Allen-wrench-only designs, do you really want to dig out a tool to have to take your wheel off? No, you don’t. More user-friendly points here for Trek.

Bontrager’s alloy cockpit is similar; it’s not flashy or fussy but simply well thought out, durable, and easy to work with. Snap a Blendr mount into the stem and you’ve got a Garmin and a GoPro/light mount in one tidy package that takes up zero space on your handlebar.

Lastly, the rubber. For gravel, it’s all about the tires, and this one rolls on what we believe to be the best tire in the game, Schwalbe’s G-One.

As the year draws to a close, Trek has already rolled out the 2021 Checkpoint models. The new Checkpoint SL 5 is $2,899.