Falling Uphill book cover and Scott standing on the edge of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
Cycling up the Worlds Steepest Hill
Scott is riding a fully-loaded bicycle up the “World’s Steepest Hill” according to the Guinness World Records in Dunedin, New Zealand. Note: the camera is angled down about 19˚ making the road appear flat. By the way, I'm sorry to say that I don't think this road sets the world record. I have cycled up much steeper unpaved roads that aren’t in any record book, and in places where I don’t think the locals have ever seen a foreigner on a bicycle.

Did you break a world record?

Many years later, this question is still one of the most common questions about my journey around the world on a bicycle. The short answer is yes and no. In this article, I’ll explain the rules for circumnavigating the globe, according to Guinness World Records, and more importantly, how we are all setting our own personal/world records every day.

I traveled the world because I felt the answer to the meaning of life was somewhere in it. I didn’t want to be told what life meant. I didn’t want to read about it. I wanted to see it with my own eyes and experience and feel it. So, my bicycle was the literal and metaphorical vehicle of my spiritual journey. It was my bikeabout, not a race around the world or an attempt to set a record. That being said, I do believe I set some records.

The bicycle that went around the world perched on the edge of a scenic cliff in the Drakensburg Mountains, Lesotho, Southern Africa.
This is my beloved bicycle and one of my favorite photographs, which is funny because it really was an afterthought when I summited these tough mountains. Notice all the gear on the back of the bike, including the road tires that needed to be swapped for the knobbies. This is Sani Pass, Lesotho. After climbing 1600 meters, sometimes up an unbelievable 33-36% grade dirt road at times surpassing the Guinness Book of World Records’ Steepest Hill in Dunedin, New Zealand, and it’s not even paved. That’s pushing a bicycle that weighed 60 pounds with gear, not including food and water.

Yes, I broke a world record

I had never heard of anyone riding a bicycle around the world. I didn’t even think it was possible. I had the idea six years before I started, in the 1990s, before the Internet made things relatively easy to research or verify. I had no evidence anyone else had done it. So, in my mind, I was the first to attempt riding a bike around the world. I would later learn that a few others had done it. However, it was much harder to begin thinking it was impossible and having no examples to follow. Well, I may not have been the first ever to cycle the world, but I was the first to do it in my particular way. And under much more difficult circumstances than now. For example, I used nothing but paper maps. No GPS or cell phones.

I know that answer sounded like a cop-out, but for me, digesting this concept of being the first to do it my own particular way has changed my life. And I think it might change yours. It’s a bit hard to understand, so I’ll break it down for you.

First) as I mentioned, I wasn’t interested in setting a record, but I did want to do something great for myself and everyone that I met along the way. Of course, being great is a matter of definition. One of the lessons I learned is to define greatness internally instead of letting the external world define who you should be. I believe everyone is capable of doing amazing things and setting their own personal records. Everyone has their own hidden genius. But you don’t need to be a genius to set a record.

Second) there is an unbreakable rule of life, and that is: everything changes. Nothing in the universe can ever be repeated. It may look similar or feel similar, but it’s not exactly the same. That means that literally everything you do is a personal/world/universe record. So, you and everyone else are setting a universe record every moment. 

I truly believe every moment of my life is a personal record because every moment is unique, and no one sees life the way I do. Other people may have ridden a bicycle around the world, but my adventure was unique and can never be repeated. This idea has helped me appreciate the small things in life. If get bored, I can think, “This moment in life is unique, and no one else can see it the way I do.”

Scott Stoll Shuttle Bike Kit Ohio River
Pictured here Scott attempts his own world record — to be the first person to ride a bicycle over the Ohio River.

I challenge you to try this thought experiment. Take any activity and think how it is different. And, even if you think it is exactly the same, consider that maybe you are different when you observe it. Or you are in a different place or time. And even if you are watching the same event, how might your perspective differ from someone else?

No, it is not an official world record

But, no my journey around the world on a bicycle is not an official world record in any way that people would agree. First off, it is hard to define a circumnavigation of the world and, obviously, the world is mostly water. Also, arguably, you can’t give yourself an award. That’s where governing bodies like Guinness World Records come into play. More on that below.

Successful Mount Everest attempts from 1953-2023 graph
Successful Mount Everest attempts from 1953 to 2023. Reprinted with permission. Chartr. Everest: It’s busy on the world’s highest mountain.

Though my achievement of cycling around the world is relatively rare. I estimate that about 00.0000000285% of the population attempts to cycle around the world in any one year, and fewer succeed.

We can compare that to the number of people climbing Mount Everest. I was there doing the 50th anniversary. (This is one of my favorite chapters in Falling Uphill.) As you can see, about 150 people successfully summitted the mountain that year. I was there with nine other cyclists. Due to the roads and weather and Mount Everest being a hotspot, this is a choke point for cyclists traveling overland between Europe and Asia. And only two of us were attempting to circumnavigate the world, myself and Edwin. (Edwin is the hero of this story.) Certainly, there were a few other people on the road making the attempt, but they finished in different years.

So, Edwin and I made what seemed like a generous estimate that a total of about 100-200 people had succeeded in cycling the world as of 2005.* That’s far less than the successful summits of Everest (over 11,000 as of 2023) and even less than people that have traveled to outer space, i.e. astronauts. 439 people went to space as of 2005, and 606 people have orbited the planet as of 2023.†

Speaking of records, a fun fact is that I actually climbed more meters of Mount Everest on a bicycle than almost everyone who climbs to the top. Most climbers drive or fly to Base Camp and then climb the remaining 3668 meters to the summit at 8848 meters, whereas I cycled from sea level to Base Camp at 5180 meters, which makes 1512 meters more than almost every mountain climber. In fact, I only know of one person that went from sea level to the summit. That was a friend of mine, Göran Kropp.

My rules for circumnavigating the globe on a bicycle

My rule for circumnavigating the globe was to travel overland by bicycle, moving forward through as many countries as possible for a distance equal to the circumference of the Earth as measured around the equator at 40,075 km. (The polar circumference is actually shorter at 40,008 kilometers.) And, yes, if I had to turn around (go backwards), I didn’t count those miles. Nor did I count any mass transportation, like planes, trains and automobiles. Read more about how I defined my trip in How to ride a bicycle around the world?

Other people had different definitions. Some thought cycling from Europe to Asia or Australia counted, but I disagreed. It is an epic journey, but it leaves out North, Central and South America. I hit six of seven continents. I missed Antarctica, but I wasn’t doing a polar circumnavigation. However, I actually did many more miles than required by Guinness World Records.

Guinness World Records rules for circumnavigating the globe on a bicycle

You can qualify for a world record by either being the fasted person to ride around the world or by doing the longest distance. This rule isn’t stated, but I think the journey must be unique in some way, like the first person to travel between A and B using while riding a unicycle.

Guidelines for fastest circumnavigation

Below is my summary. If you want a more detailed explanation, download the Guinness World Records PDF for Fastest Circumnavigation by Bicycle Guidelines and the Longest Journey.

  1. You can ride any bicycle, but it has to be the same bicycle the whole journey. If it gets destroyed, you can get a new one if you provide photographic evidence. If it gets stolen, you are out of luck.
  2. No drafting of other bicycles or vehicles.
  3. Start and finish must be the same place.
  4. The journey can only go in one direction, like west to east.
  5. Going any other direction is discounted.
  6. The minimum overland distance is 18,000 miles.
  7. Breaks are included in total time.
  8. When crossing impassable barriers, like oceans, only public transportation is allowed, but these miles aren’t counted. And if your flight is delayed, or likewise, that time is counted against you.
  9. You must pass through two antipodal points, which are points on the exact opposite sides of the planet. The most common are Madrid, Spain and Wellington, New Zealand. Mine were obscure locations in Peru and Malaysia.

Guidelines for longest navigation

  1. The journey must be continuous between any two points. A series of connecting shorter journeys is not allowed. (This was a tough rule for me to follow. I did skip over sections that seemed dangerous, like countries at war. Also, I was not allowed into every country.)
  2. You can make as many breaks as you want, but they should not exceed 14 days.
  3. It can be supported or unsupported.
  4. And like above, when crossing impassable barriers, like oceans, only public transportation is allowed, and these miles aren’t counted.

Guidelines for evidence

Above are the rules regarding riding a bicycle. Both types of journeys (fast and long) have lots of additional rules regarding measuring the route. Here are a few:

  1. Most importantly, you have to submit your plan before you leave. There are no retroactive awards.
  2. Use reliable equipment, like GPS.
  3. Keep a log book and witness book.
  4. Photograph yourself in front of recognizable landmarks.

Set your own world record

If you are interested, you can apply for your own Guinness World Record. But remember that every moment of your own life is really a personal record because every moment is unique, and no one sees life the way you do.

Footnotes

See the links above, plus the following:

Guinness World Records PDF for Fastest Circumnavigation by Bicycle Guidelines and the Longest Journey.

The first man to cycle the world 1884-1886: Thomas Stevens.

The first woman to cycle the world. 1894–95: Annie Londonderry.

Fastest circumnavigation around the world. 2017: Mark Beaumont.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Around_the_world_cycling_record

How to ride a bicycle around the world?

* Here is how I calculated the total number of people that cycled around the world by the year 2005. As I mentioned above, Mount Everest is a choke point for cyclists. In our year, only 9 cyclists made it to Tibet, and only 2 of us were attempting the world. I only know of one other cyclist that was making the attempt at the same time. That makes 3 that year. If you figure that Thomas Stevens was the first world cyclist to finish in 1885 and figure 3 per year (much more now), that makes 360. But, I think the number of completions in previous years, with less technology, was much lower, maybe 0-1 finishing per year. That makes about 200. But there might have been hardly any attempts in the early 1900s, and I bet zero during the world wars. So that makes the number closer to 100.

Registry of Space Travelers.

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