About a year and a half ago I purchased a Trek Checkpoint ALR 5 gravel bike. After some research into the different brands that were available here in Edmonton, I thought the Checkpoint was the best compromise between features and cost. Trek had an excellent reputation for the quality of their aluminium frames, and I knew I wanted the Shimano 105 group-set, so I resolved that this would be my purchase. In the spring of 2019, there was a Trek sale at United Cycle so I went to check it out. After a brief, no-pressure chat with a salesperson, a shiny new 58cm 2020 (2020 at the beginning of 2019? Go figure) model was rolled out for me. I straddled it…no contact, which was good. I stood back to look at it with what I hoped was professional intensity. I wiggled the handlebars, spun the peddles, rubbed my chin a few times, and then said, “I’ll take it!” I added a pair of Shimano peddles, which they installed, and I was out the door.
I am not a bike techie. Like any other interest I have undertaken, I learn just enough about what I want to ensure the product will perform as I require it to. I was also quite certain that, beyond needing to fit the bike to my own unique physique, that I would also have to make some changes to better suit my requirements.
What did I expect from my bike? I wanted to explore with it, without being too hindered by road, track, or trail conditions. I needed a tough bike. I was going to have to travel at least 6 km on paved roads to get outside of the city to gravel roads, so I wanted good speed on the pavement. I also wanted to use the bike on single-track trails and in the river valley parks, so I needed it to be reasonably light so I could climb hills without having a heart attack and be able to place it up on the roof-rack without giving me a hernia. If I was going to own only one bike, a gravel bike seemed to be the best compromise for the conditions I was expecting to cycle in.
Gravel bikes are road bikes with added grit. They can handle wider tires, have a longer wheelbase for stability on softer surfaces, and have more mounting points for adding accessories. The very first decision was in the store on the day of the bike purchase. They typically sell new bikes without pedals. What type of pedals to choose?
I used toe-clip pedals when I was younger, but the current “clipless” pedals (which use cleats instead of clips) were what I wanted. Clipless peddles fall mainly into two categories, two-bolt for urban and mountain biking, and three-bolt for road racing. I wanted to use cycling shoes that were easy to walk in should I need to, so two-bolt became the obvious choice: the cleats are recessed in the shoe rather than protruding from it like the three-bolt designs. I chose Shimano PD-EH500 peddles with an SPD step-in design on one side, and a flat platform on the other, allowing me to cycle with or without cleats.
The cause for my first true adaptation of the bike became painfully apparent a few weeks after purchase. I could not get comfortable in the stock saddle, and even worse, it was actually causing damage to my undercarriage. I needed a drastic change, and after much research, determined that the ISM SADDLE ISM PR3.0 was the best bet. This saddle is essentially a chopped (off the front) and split version of a regular saddle that takes the pressure off the perineum and the family jewels. I can honestly say that this change was the most important one that I have made. It allowed me to continue cycling, which eventually contributed to weight loss that has improved my life so much.
The next major change I made was to the handlebar. The stock bar was the Bontrager Elite IsoZone VR-CF Road Handlebar, essentially just a padded (the “IsoZone” bit) road bike drop bar, that does little to deal with the requirements of rough roads and trails. I did my research and eventually settled on a drop bar with flare, the 46 cm Ritchey Comp Venturemax Handlebar 2020.
The Venturemax is only 2 cm wider across the top, but it has a 24 deg. flare-out in the drop section and only a 102mm drop to spare my back on long rides. I reused the IsoZone padding from the original bars, and double wrapped them, so the shock-absorbency is slightly better than the original bars. The Venturemax gives me more stability and control when cycling on gravel roads and rough trails, and that adds up to more self-confidence and speed, and hopefully fewer crashes.
These are the major changes I have made to the bike so far, but I have added other minor accessories to make the bike more useful for my needs and safer to cycle with. I’ll discuss those accessories in a future post.