Fifty-three years ago last month, the Apollo 11 spaceflight enabled Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to be the first people to walk on the moon. That bold yet calculated, truly unprecedented trip has been a source of inspiration to starry-eyed adventurers and innovators ever since.
Case in point: Priority Bicycles’ drive to build a groundbreaking gravel bike, a mission that came to public attention when the brand's first Apollo model launched a couple of years ago. The 11 hidden in its name is a subtle reference to the bike’s belt-driven, drop bar-shifted, 11-speed Alfine internal hub, a feature never before seen on a gravel bike — and a reminder of what humans can do when they forget the rules and simply imagine the possibilities.
But just as space exploration didn’t stop after the moon mission, Priority has continued to iterate on the Apollo — and recently launched a new-and-improved 2022 edition with some notable upgrades. I’ve gotten a chance to ride this impressively engineered machine from potholed city streets to technical gravel trails, so instead of torturing this lunar metaphor any longer, let me tell you what stands out about this rather uncommon bike.
What's Great About the Priority Apollo
The Apollo Is Smooth
Even before I took the Apollo off-road, I was blown away by how smooth the shifting was. Actually that’s a total lie. I have ridden half a dozen different Priority bikes over the years, so at this point I expect them to be smooth, and they unfailingly are. The brand’s bread and butter is the Gates Carbon belt drive you will find on every single model, and the designers get better and better at integrating it into their bikes with every passing year.
In this case, they’ve inserted an 11-speed internally geared system into a gravel bike, complete with drop-bar shifters and a 409% gear range. I’ve found that just about anywhere I ride — from Manhattan’s West Side Highway to the Brooklyn Bridge to the short but challenging Cold Spring Gravel Grinder, about 60 miles north of the city — adjusting to ups and downs is almost an afterthought. A little tap on one of the two levers alongside the right hand brake and I’m quickly upshifting or downshifting, with never the sort of crunch or clunk you sometimes hear — or I sometimes hear, anyway — during an awkward derailleur shift.
New for this year, the bike boasts a tapered full-carbon fork designed to cut weight and dampen vibration, plus proprietary 174 Hudson hydraulic disc brakes to stop on a dime, or at least a silver dollar. Both of these features, in my experience, did add to the smoothness: during some rather gnarly loose gravel descents around Cold Spring, I felt pretty steady. I only occasionally lost confidence in myself, never the stability of the fork or the grip of the 700c x 40mm Goodyear/WTB tires beneath me.
The Apollo Is Low Maintenance
At this point, anyone who has also read my effusive review of Priority’s Ace of Spades single-speed/fixie is probably screaming, “Alright, belt drives are amazing, I get it!” But in this case the proposition is a little different. Because as wonderful as it is to have a single speed or fixie where you never ever have to worry about rain or shift the axle to tweak the chain tension, having a geared bike where you never have to lube the chain or adjust the derailleur is, in a word, huge.
That’s especially true when you are talking about an off-road bike that can very easily find itself in dusty or muddy conditions that can interfere with gear shifting. In my experience with the Apollo and other geared Priority bikes, this is simply never an issue. You can pretty much treat the belt drive however you want and it’ll be just as ready to roll the next time you saddle up.
The Apollo Is Versatile
Part of this section is really a statement about gravel bikes in general, which I have previously noted seem to function incredibly well in environments for which they were not at all designed. I speak of course of city streets, which can be, to use a British expression, utter shite.
From cracks to potholes to cobblestones to graded roads right before they get repaved, the average urban rider faces all kinds of adversity just trying to make a beer run. A good gravel bike, whether it’s this one or another, such as State’s $550 4130 single-speed, will generally crush those conditions much better than a set of 23 mm tires on a high-performance road bike.
That said, I must mention one experience where the Apollo’s recent update came up clutch. When I first picked up the bike, the guys were sheepishly excited about the additional braze-ons this bike boasts on the down tube and top tube, enabling the mounting of extra bags and accessories, a huge plus if you want to, say, take this rig bikepacking.
But while graveling upstate, using the lower braze-ons to tote a couple of water bottles, I found the top tube ones especially handy. Because about 7 miles from the end of my ride, I realized I’d lost a bolt from both of my SPD shoes. This makes it incredibly difficult to extract yourself from the pedals, a pretty dangerous scenario. Those top tube screws poked into my soles a bit, but damn they sure worked in a pinch.
What’s Not So Great about the Priority Apollo
The Apollo isn't the lightest gravel bike out there
I'm admittedly spoiled. The last gravel bike I tested was the Specialized Crux Expert, which at 17.86 pounds, is more than six pounds lighter than the 24-pound Apollo. It also costs more than three times as much, so in this case, less really is more.
It's worth noting that 24 pounds is not exactly heavy — the 6061 T6 Aluminum frame and carbon fork help the bike stay at least a pound lighter than State's similarly priced 4130 All-Road XPLR AXS — it's just heavier than some other options. Tackling 3,248 feet of climbing around Cold Spring on a humid day, I did feel the weight from time to time.
The Apollo has its limits
Speaking of climbing, it brings up my one other knock on the Apollo. About two-thirds of the way through the Gravel Grinder, my Ride With GPS app said something like "prepare for sharp right turn followed by immediate steep climb." Holy crap, she was not kidding. It was essentially a hairpin turn from a stretch of paved road into basically Machu Picchu. I am exaggerating slightly, but I did face a pretty steep and technical climb that continued, on and off, for a few miles. Rather brutal.
As wonderfully smooth as the 1x11 drivetrain of the Apollo is, I often found myself desperately pressing the lower lever, only to realize I couldn't go any lower. I felt like one or two more gears would have been just about perfect. Then again, a bike inspired by Apollo 13 seems... ill-advised.
The Verdict on the Priority Apollo
If it isn't clear by the length of the two sections above, my raves are plentiful and my rants are relatively scant. While the Apollo isn't the fastest or lightest gravel bike ever, it might just be the smoothest and most reliable option — with a heck of a lot of bang for 2,000 bucks. That value is enhanced by the fact you won't be needing to take this bike in for maintenance anytime soon. You'll ride a lot of miles before spending another penny, and if your experience is anything like mine was, the adventure just might feel, well, out of this world.