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The Washington Diplomat

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Biking to the Fullest

by Gail Sullivan

Most people battling leukemia don't undertake a 3,500-mile solo bike ride between rounds of chemotherapy. But Luigi Laraia is not like most people.

The 37-year-old World Bank economist was diagnosed with leukemia in March and received his first round of chemotherapy two weeks later. He will undergo a second round in October.

The diagnosis was "really a thunderbolt," Laraia said. "There were times I was on my couch or my bed and just didn't have the strength to get up. I didn't want see anybody, talk to anybody. It would have been very easy just to stay there."

Photos: Luigi Laraia
Luigi Laraia, a 37-year-old World Bank economist who was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year, is biking from D.C. to Vancouver in 35 days to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.


The initial shock gave way to determination. Laraia made up his mind to live life to the fullest, rather than dwelling on what he stands to lose from the disease.

In May, Laraia's doctor gave the lifelong recreational athlete the go-ahead to start exercising again. Getting back to the gym wasn't about returning to old habits, however. Rebuilding the strength he had lost during weeks of hospitalization and treatment was a way of wresting control of his body from the disease.

It also served a larger purpose: to prepare him for a solo bike ride across America, from Washington, D.C., to Vancouver, Canada, in 35 days to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The money will go toward improving treatment methods and possibly finding a cure for leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells that was diagnosed in an estimated 44,600 people last year.

Laraia left D.C. with an informal kickoff ceremony at the Italian Embassy on July 26 and, weather permitting, will arrive in Vancouver by Sept. 1. He is travelling alone, with only a computer, cell phone and a change of clothes.

His journey takes him through major cities and remote towns, along routes traversed by explorers and through territory once inhabited by bison and native tribes. He is documenting the entire experience on his blog, where he posts photos and writes about the people and places he encounters each day. His entries are animated by historical notes and pop culture references ranging from the Blues Brothers, to "Fargo," to Ingmar Bergman.

The headwind he has battled for most of his journey is also a frequent topic on his blog. Intentionally or not, it is a metaphor for his battle with leukemia. "The wind makes a mockery of my faith in certainty because there is none," he writes. "So I find peace in not knowing when and how it will blow again and by doing so I enjoy the ride … if it does blow against me then I will find a way to dance to its tune, I will use it to enjoy other things that I did not see before because I was so busy fighting it. I will listen to it and I will love it."


There are easier ways to raise money for cancer research, but for Laraia, the message is as important as the money. "It was not easy to 'go public' with my condition," Laraia wrote on his blog. "I did it because I hope that fighting the miles right in the middle of cancer treatment will send a strong message of hope to those who are ill." Laraia isn't one to shy away from a challenge. In 2010, he did a solo cross-country bike ride to the Grand Canyon, and he had no intention of it being his last. He believes in "being yourself in desperate times." That, he explains, means "doing what you love and not waiting until it's gone."

During his 2010 ride, he got a thrill from pushing himself to go faster and harder each day, arriving at his destination three days early. But this time, Laraia must be conscientious of his body's limits. His immune system is weaker and body tires more easily. This journey is a different type of challenge.

"I did not leave Washington, D.C., 18 days ago to go a cycling tour in Beverly Hills," he says. "I am out here to give the bad stuff meaning, to make sense of something that does not make sense at all, and if I cannot find a reason then as sure as hell I went out swinging and nobody can say I didn't."

This journey also brings a different reward. On day 20 of his ride, Laraia passed the $20,000 mark of campaign, double his initial fundraising goal, and set a new goal of $30,000. He checks his fundraising site and his blog daily, and is fueled by the donations and supportive comments. "I am pushing hard because I never lose sight of the cause.… This is why I am on the road when I am supposed to be frail and cautious."

For Laraia, it's not just about fundraising — it's about the journey itself. "Nobody can deny me the pleasure of cycling solo in the mountains," he writes. "This is the best medicine for me. I am feeling stronger already. It is going to be a drug with a lasting effect and when the body needs another round of medication all I have to do is dig up in my memories and remember it."

For more information, visit Luigi Laraia's blog at and his fundraising page at

About the Author

Gail Sullivan is freelance writer for The Diplomatic Pouch.




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