Unlike 29ers and eBikes, which I have thoroughly embraced, I have always had a negative attitude towards gravel bikes. It was exacerbated by gravel bike developments that mimicked the evolution of mountain bikes. Are we just going backwards or around in a circle with gravel I wondered – and sometimes lamented. I figured I needed to try gravel riding before I formed any further opinion. Here’s how my introduction has gone.

By Sean Badenhorst

Will this gravel-riding experience be a journey I can embrace? Time will tell…

“A gravel bike is worst of both worlds – it’s a shit road bike and a shit mountain bike,” has been one of my default lines when speaking in some depth about the topic of gravel bikes over the past four years or so.

And you can’t really blame me. Having chatted to early adopters who struggled with punctures and post-ride body aches, I just couldn’t see why anyone would want to willingly ride what seemed like a modified road bike, off-road. Why not just ride a mountain bike, which is more robust and comfortable?

Then I started seeing brands like Niner boasting about its full-suspension gravel bike, which resembles a gravel bike, but also is just a flat-bar and a tyre-inch away from being a short-travel mountain bike. Mostly. Again, I wondered why?

Niner Magic Carpet Ride. Seriously, that’s the model name.

Gravel riding – and racing – seemed to really take off in the United States. But didn’t quite catch on in South Africa, other than in some small pockets, mostly in the Western Cape. One of my favourite Instagram accounts to follow is that of South African Kevin Benkenstein (@KevinBenky), who is utterly in love with gravel bike riding and posts the most beautiful images of his adventures.

Rage Red. Phwoar!

Then we hit the Covid-19-induced lockdown in early 2020 and gradually, gravel bikes started selling. Experienced road cyclists and mountain bikers were unable to race due to the lengthy pause and restrictions on events and unable to travel abroad because, well, the deadly virus!

With money unspent on the usual stuff and the desire to try something different, but not too different, gravel-rider numbers grew, even in Gauteng, where gravel roads are abundant, but surface conditions can vary significantly.

In a discussion with the guys at Trek South Africa, the gravel bike topic came up and I almost surprised myself by asking if I could use one of the Checkpoint demo bikes to dip my toes into gravel riding and write about the experience – good or bad. They agreed.

The Checkpoint SL7 arrived while I was away. On my return I spent some time having a look at it and this what stood out for me:

Top-end wireless shifting – hard not to like.

The colour! I think I’m getting a bit soft in my old-ish age because I’m becoming partial to dark red/burgundy/dried blood-red colouring on bikes. Bike colour has never really mattered much to me before. Now it’s inspiring me to write about it! Anyway, this metallic Rage Red carbon frame is just beautiful.

The weight: I have the 56-cm frame size, which weighs 8.65kg. Maybe I’m just used to riding full-suspension mountain bikes that weigh at least 10kg, but mostly around 11.5kg, but this feels really light to me. Bear in mind that I don’t ride on the road much, nor do I own a lightweight road bike.

The wheelset: A burley pair Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3V with carbon rims and 40mm Bontrager GR1 tubeless tyres. It’s hard not to be impressed with how these wheels look! They inspire confidence in their potential ability to ride the dodgy gravel roads around Joburg.

A Bontrager wheelset that inspires confidence.

The drivetrain: Shew. SRAM’s Force eTap AXC levers, XX1 Eagle rear derailleur and 10-50 cassette with a 40-tooth chainring and 172.5mm SRAM Force cranks. Top end man! TOP END!

There’s obviously more to the bike, see it here but these four features stood out most to me with my first impression. I used my own memorised measurements to set the saddle height and reach and got ready to head out the next morning on my first ride, which I’ll describe in Part 2 of my quest to determine if gravel riding is all it’s cracked up to be…

The Trek Checkpoint SL7 is a good-looking bike for sure.