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22 May 2016


If, following Pascal’s Wager, the riders taking part in today’s mountain time trial wished to make a small offering, the suitable recipient would probably be the god of gravity. But not even the Greeks, who had gods for most things, had a deity responsible for gravitation. No one noticed that there was any such thing until that freak spate of falling apples in the seventeenth century.

Sisyphus was condemned for all eternity to push an immense boulder up a mountain, not for insulting the god of gravity but for making the mistake of believing his cleverness made him superior to Zeus himself.

His sin, then, was hubris, a word with no clear derivation, although the first element is likely to come from the Proto-Indo-European *ud- ‎meaning ‘outward, up.’ So perhaps he was punished for believing himself outside gravity’s jurisidiction. Not a mistake a racing cyclist would ever make, certainly not before today’s 10.8 km time trial, all uphill.

At the end of each long effort, Sisyphus achieves the task, only to see the stone teeter, gather pace, and rush down to the base of the climb whence he will have to push it back to the top. Albert Camus took a contrarian attitude to the story: ‘It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me.’ He is interested in the condemned soul’s thought processes as he stomps back down the mountain.

The Algeria-born Existentialist might have taken an interest in Darwin Atapuma’s descent from the Passo di Valparola. Puma, as he is known, is the Sisyphus of the Giro d’Italia, on the attack on stage 10 (third at 1’20”) and stage 13 (25th at 2’33”), all to no avail. Yesterday, too, he joined the long attack of 36 riders early on, formed part of a group of three with 93 km to go, then attacked alone with 25 km to go. He rode valiantly as the quartet containing Kruijswijk and Chaves closed in, but in the end he was forced to settle for fourth place in the stage. The headline “Puma pounces on the Cat’s Wall” would never be used.

A team-mate of Nairo, Chavito and Pantano in 2010 and 2011 with Colombia es Pasión, and of Chavito and Pantano in Team Colombia, Puma is the fourth Colombian, the one yet to break through, always there or thereabouts. Perhaps he should read Camus’ mentor, the Japanese philosopher Kuki Shūzō, who wrote of Sisyphus, with his ‘firm and certain will of always beginning again,’ that we should imagine him as a happy man, ‘perpetually renewing his effort, and capable of a perpetual repetition of dissatisfaction.’