Not unlike Hansel in 2001, gravel biking is so hot right now. The combination of road biking’s high velocity and mountain biking’s rocky thrills is tough to beat. But with bike prices as high as five figures, it can also be tough to afford.
Thankfully, a couple of bike brands have taken it upon themselves to offer capable, reliable gravel bikes at a more accessible price point of $2,000: Priority Bicycles, with the Apollo, and State Bicycle Co., with the 4130 All-Road XPLR AXS.
These two bikes are fascinating to compare, because while they are priced quite similarly, their most noteworthy features are quite different. The Apollo’s highlight is an 11-speed internally geared hub powered by a strong, silent Gates carbon belt drive — something you won’t find on any other $2,000 gravel bike. The 4130’s big selling point, on the other hand, is SRAM's precision-tuned Rival XPLR AXS electronic drivetrain — something else you won’t find on any other $2,000 gravel bike.
The two writers of this piece have spent countless hours testing the two bikes — Steve on the Apollo and Will on the 4130 — setting the stage for an epic mudslinging debate. Or, at the very least, a grown-up discussion of each bike’s pros and cons.
The Contenders for the Best $2,000 Gravel Bike
Since its inception in 2012, New York City-based Priority has sworn by Gates Carbon Drive belts, a high-end, low-maintenance alternative to traditional bike chains that power every single one of the brand’s models. The Apollo is no different. Introduced a couple years ago, the bike also boasts an ultralight aluminum frame, 11-speed internal hub, 409 percent gear range, integrated shifting via levers on the right handlebar and beefy, tubeless-ready 700c X 40mm WTB/Goodyear tires.
The latest edition, launched earlier this year, boasts some notable tweaks: a tapered full-carbon fork that dampens vibration and cuts weight (the whole rig weighs about 24 pounds), upgraded hydraulic disc brakes packed with responsive stopping power and a couple of additional braze-ons on the top tube. The latter complement mounting positions on the down tube and top tube — plus front and rear rack mounts — enabling you to carry extra cargo, whether you are running errands around town or going bikepacking.
State Bicycle is working to make bikes accessible to everyone. The Arizona brand got started in 2009, making straightforward, high-quality single-speed and fixed-gear bikes, many of which come in well under $500. It has since expanded its lineup, making some of the most affordable cyclocross and gravel bikes you can buy.
State has taken its affordability mentality to the next level by upgrading its popular 4130 All-Road drop-bar adventure bike with SRAM's stellar Rival XPLR AXS electronic drivetrain, something that is unheard of on a bike under $2,000.
You may think the brand would have to cut corners to keep costs down, but the 4130 All-Road is the real deal, from top to bottom. The bike's foundation is a 4130 Chromoly steel frame and fork fitted with thru-axle dropouts, and from there you get hydraulic brakes, your choice of 700c or 650b wheels and plenty of cargo mounts for all of your adventures.
How to Choose Which Gravel Bike Is Right for You
As we alluded to above, you can spend an awful lot on a gravel bike. But especially if you are just getting into the sport, you don't need to. There are some key features to look for if you want to increase your odds of positive, safe off-road adventures: In our experience testing a number of gravel bikes, we’ve identified three major traits to prioritize.
First off, wide tires are key. The general consensus is a minimum width of 32mm (some races and trails actually require it), and any serious gravel bike will have clearance for that and often a good deal more. The wider you go, the gnarlier terrain you will be able to handle (we’ve ridden full-on mountain bike single-track with the Evil Chamois Hagar, which boasts borderline bonkers 50mm tires, stock), but what you gain in security, you lose in velocity. We’ve found that somewhere around 40mm offers a nice balance of stability and speed.
A second key consideration is a generous gear range. Gravel trails reside, quite literally, off the beaten path, which often translates to a considerable variance in elevation. And while being underbiked on a road climb is a solvable problem — standing up on the pedals, even a single-speed can surmount a hill — mountain and gravel bikers don’t always have the option to stand up, because doing so surrenders the grip of your back tire and can leave you spinning your wheels in the dirt. Most good gravel bikes these days offer a 1x drivetrain for easy shifting and at least 10 gears — including a big "granny" gear — to make summiting even super-steep hills realistic.
The third major trait — like the first two, dictated by the type of terrain you’ll be tackling — is reliable disc brakes. Less-expensive rim brakes are generally fine for street riding, but when you start descending on a variety of surfaces — from loose gravel to rocks to sand, dirt and mud — while navigating around obstacles and keeping a safe distance from other riders, super-responsive brakes are key. Disc brakes not only allow modulation (feathering of the brakes), they also offer more stopping power than rim brakes and function better in wet conditions. Because you don’t need room for a brake caliper, disc brakes also accommodate wider tires, another reason they are de rigeur on any self-respecting gravel bike.
Other features, such as a crazy light carbon frame, some form of suspension and a dropper post, can be great to have, but they’re also great at lightening your wallet — and not essential to a successful off-road adventure.
Test 1: Ride Quality and Performance
Steve on the Apollo: From the moment I swung a leg over this bike, it inspired confidence. The frame feels incredibly well-built and stable, with a geometry that feels comfortable when cruising on the road but simultaneously hungry for rocks and dirt, thanks to 440mm drop bars with a 12-degree flare and 90mm reach. Once I reached that sort of terrain — hitting the trails around Cold Spring, about 60 miles north of New York City — I was impressed by how smooth the pedaling and shifting was. Just a little tap of the levers on the right handlebar enabled seamless transitions thanks to the belt drive and internally hubbed Alfine 11 system.
About halfway through a 30-mile Cold Spring loop, I hit a huge loose gravel descent that left had my arms vibrating so much they went numb. That made for an excellent opportunity to test those 40mm tires and disc brakes. My grip on the shifty surface never really wavered, while the brakes enabled safe and secure speed modulation, feathering at the end to pick up speed and roll into the uphill portion that followed with considerable momentum. That being said, I did encounter one very steep ascent where I felt like I could have used another gear or two. It was not impossible to climb, but it definitely left me huffing and puffing my way to the top.
Will on the 4130: I tested the 4130 across a number of surfaces: pothole-laden streets in Brooklyn, trails in multiple parks and on gravely, mixed pavement. In every situation, I felt completely comfortable. The version I tested had 700c tires, which roll faster in the city and on gravel roads, though if I were to ride exclusively on heavy gravel and light mountain bike trails, the 650b version would be the better option. For most people, though, I'd opt for the 700c just for its practical versatility and comfort.
My test bike was also equipped with State's carbon, thru-axle Monster Fork ($300), which I would probably deem the only mandatory upgrade when you first buy the bike. The steel fork is fine, with a bunch of points to mount racks or extra gear — but the Monster Fork has that and more. It's much lighter and can absorb more of the chatter you find on gravel roads, which in turn helps you go faster. It still has six mounting points and can hold a load of up to 55 pounds — perfect for a rack, camping gear, and extra water bottle holders.
Test 2: Technology and Special Features
Steve on the Apollo: The most notable tech on this bike is, of course, the aforementioned belt drive and internal hub. I’ve yammered a fair amount already (and will yammer more in Test 3), so I will just say that while such a feature is rare on a gravel bike, Priority’s long history with belt drives makes them the perfect brand to integrate one here, and the execution is damn near flawless. Indeed, it’s their lightest and fastest multi-speed bike, pretty streamlined at 24 pounds.
I also appreciate the internal cables, which keep the frame clean and streamlined, as well as the immaculately taped drop bars and of course the bevy of braze-ons. Those extra top tube ones actually came in quite handy during testing, as I somehow managed to lose a bolt from both of my cleats. Scavenging the ones from the top tube helped me negotiate the final seven miles of my ride with nary a scratch.
Will on the 4130: Normally reserved for bikes ridden by the pros, electronic shifting is a relatively new technology — one previously unheard-of on a bike not made of carbon or costing south of five grand. State changed all this when it gave the 4130 All-Road the SRAM Rival XPLR AXS eTap setup.
Rival has been SRAM's go-to groupset for affordable bikes for years and now you can finally get an electronic version. Essentially, this means that there are no cables to fuss with; all of the shifting happens via electronic signals sent from the shifters to the rear derailleur, making for seamless, exacting movement each and every time you shift. Add this to the optional Monster Fork and you have an affordable machine with tech you wouldn't expect at the price point.
Test 3: Maintenance
Steve on the Apollo: The folks at Priority tell me they’ve done quite a bit of business supplying beach cruisers to hotels and resorts, and I can’t say I am surprised. If you’re providing bikes for dozens of people to pile up miles on every month, you want them as low-maintenance as possible, and that’s where Gates Carbon Drive belts with internal hubs really shine. You never need to lube a chain or adjust a derailleur. You can leave it out in the rain and it’ll never rust. And in the case of the Apollo, you can hit dusty or muddy conditions and not worry about the belt getting jacked up by flying peddles, crunchified by dust or slowed down by mud. It’ll keep spinning smoothly through all kinds of crud, and be ready to rip the next time you hop on it.
Of course, there’s more to bike maintenance than the drivetrain. In my albeit limited experience with this one, it hasn’t needed anything beyond a little air in the tires now and then. The same goes for my daily driver, also a Priority (yeah, I’m a bit biased), which I’ve been ripping around town on for well over a year.
Will on the 4130: I've put a few hundred miles on the State 4130 in the months I've had it, and I have to say, it's really easy to take care of. You'd think the electronic shifting would be complicated, but once you get it dialed, it rarely needs a tune-up. With cable-actuated shifting, a tune-up after the first 100 miles is essentially a requirement, but I haven't even taken my State to the shop yet. The SRAM app helps you keep track of the drivetrain's battery levels — make sure you charge the battery — and you can easily make micro-adjustments thanks to buttons on the shifters.
I haven't even had a flat yet, despite bombing through the craggy streets of Brooklyn, so much like Steve on the Priority, I just pump up the tires now and then and I'm ready to ride.
Best Overall $2,000 Gravel Bike
Steve: This one was almost too close to call. We considered racing the bikes straight at each other (a la Furious 7) to see who was left standing, but for some reason Legal refused to sign off. While the State is amazing, the Priority’s combo of super-durable aluminum construction (about a pound less than State), a stock carbon fork and the ultra low-maintenance Gates Carbon Drive belt is pretty damn tough to beat. It’s shifting might not be as snazzy as the SRAM eTap, but it’ll get you to the top of hill — and back down again — without a fuss, making it the best $2,000 gravel bike for most people.
Best $2,000 Gravel Bike for The Bougie Bike Nerd
Will: While this was a tough battle, I think I must acquiesce to the fact that the Priority is a helluva bike. To finish things off, I'll say I adore the State — I even bought it for myself after I was done testing. The electronic shifting is so smooth and the monster fork is a huge bonus. With that said, the fork takes the price to $2,300 and we couldn't in good conscience give the victory to the State. If you are down to splurge on a bike with SRAM eTap, though, you should also splurge for the monster fork — I can guarantee you won't be disappointed.