When 6-year-old Luca Comaratta walks his blue Trek two-wheeler toward the starting line Saturday morning for the Ride for Roswell, he will see a familiar face: a tall, slender man, who often dons a light blue surgical mask. That is his father, Ross.
For the past two years, Ross Comaratta participated in the 100-mile portion of the benefit ride. But he was diagnosed with cancer late last year, has undergone treatment and is unable to ride this year.
However, he was asked to wave the starting flag to kick off the three-mile family portion of the Ride for Roswell, and Comaratta is looking forward to sharing his passion for bicycling with his son and nearly 70 of his closest friends and family.
“The fact that I am unable to do the ride this year, I kind of see Luca as my proxy,” Comaratta said. “He, in some regards, is sort of taking my place.”
Luca raised $22,555 with the help of his mom, Anne Marie, family members, friends and his elementary school, Smallwood Drive Elementary. The family decided to start a fundraising page for Luca and before they knew it, he became one of the top youth fundraisers.
The Comaratta family’s story captures the wide spectrum of experience the ride represents, said Mitch Flynn, founder of the ride.
“You have on one end this remarkable story of an athlete who unexpectedly got leukemia, and it really speaks to how cancer affects so many people, even the people you would perceive as the least likely,” said Flynn.
Comaratta started feeling fatigued around the end of November 2014, and after a series of bloodwork and tests around Christmas, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Comaratta was admitted the same day to Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Comaratta stayed at Roswell for 100 days to undergo intense, seven-day cycles of 24-hour chemotherapy treatments. Following an additional treatment cycle and a heart procedure, he was released in April to continue treatments at home, in addition to regular visits to the hospital.
“Roswell for us before this … It had this kind of abstract quality,” said Comaratta’s wife, Anne Marie. “But since we’ve been there and spent four months there meeting nurses, doctors, everyone, we totally get it now – in the most intimate way imaginable – how important this hospital is.”
Anne Marie said Luca had a positive experience when his dad stayed at Roswell.
“We knew that it was a way to make this really tough experience something positive for him,” she said. “It’s been really hard to have his dad sick.”
Despite his inability to ride this year, Comaratta got on a bike whenever he could – even in the hospital.
During the first round of chemotherapy, Anne Marie’s brother, Brian DeLuca, had the idea to bring in Ross’ bike on a trainer so he could regain a bit of his old life.
“Biking provided some sort of normalcy for me, and when I had my headphones on and the pedals spinning, it was an escape and getaway,” he recalled.
On those escapes, he listened to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Dinosaur Jr.
Over the past two years, Comaratta has completed the 100-mile ride with several friends from college. Though he isn’t able to participate in the ride this year, it has a new meaning for the Comaratta family.
He receives treatment at Roswell every other day and completes at-home chemotherapy every day. Due to his low white blood cell counts, Comaratta is susceptible to catching any kind of illness, and that is why doctors recommended his wearing a surgical mask and gloves every day to minimize infection risks.
The Ride for Roswell has expanded considerably since it started 20 years ago, Flynn said.
Roughly 8,000 riders will participate this year, a big increase from the first year when 1,000 participated.
A new Canada route was created for this year as well, in addition to the several others already in place.
In 2003, the organization started recognizing fundraisers who raised $1,000 or more, and that year 39 people qualified for the Extra Mile Club.
Twelve years later, the organization was able to recognize 981 riders for reaching that distinction.
Flynn said one of the goals for this year’s 20th anniversary is to reach 1,000 individuals as top fundraisers. Another goal is to cumulatively raise $5 million. Every year since 2003, fundraising has grown over the previous year, and Flynn said he is confident the group will exceed last year’s total – $4.4 million.