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A Christmas Day pilgrimage to the birthplace of Milan-San Remo

I paid a festive visit to the start location of the very first edition of the race – but ‘Little Donkey’ has a different meaning at this restaurant

I’ve come to realise in the past few years that if we’re visiting my partner’s family in Milan during the festive season, the best thing I can do on Christmas morning is get out of the way as Laura, her mother and sister make preparations for the afternoon meal, so I take myself for a walk, with their blessing.

And so it was yesterday, under glorious skies of the deepest azzurro, that I made a long-planned pilgrimage to somewhere holding special significance for me – L’Osteria della Conca Fallata on the Naviglio Pavese on the southern fringe of the city where, in 1907, the very first edition of Milan-San Remo began.

It’s no secret that the race nicknamed La Classica di Primavera is my favourite one-day race on the calendar.

Back in 1993/94, when I was an Erasmus student 30 kilometres further south in Pavia, it was the first race I saw in person, and the route also takes it along the Riviera, the first part of Italy I ever visited when, in 1990, Scotland played their opening two matches of the FIFA World Cup in Genoa.

The sight that day 30 years ago of the colourful peloton flashing by, and the insights my friend Claudio, a decent amateur racer at the time, gave me sparked what is now a three-decade-long love of road cycling.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the race in person several times in recent years (Bar Zanzibar in San Remo, on the roundabout just past the fiamma rossa, is for me the perfect spot to watch the leaders hurtle round the bend then catch the closing few hundred metres on TV).

During that year studying abroad, I must have passed the spot where the first edition of the race began dozens of times in trips to and from Milan without even realising it.

But with my partner’s family living in nearby Barona, in recent years paying a visit to the race’s birthplace has been on my to-do list on visits here – and finally it got ticked off yesterday.

Standing on that spot, I’m thinking of the first winner of the race, Lucien Petit-Breton, who would go on to win that year’s Tour de France, riding a Bianchi made right here in Milan, and the other 32 who had took to the start line outside the restaurant at 4.30am on a cold, wet morning that April morning in 1907, only 14 finishing the race.

The name of the restaurant, La Conca Falllata, is owed to the adjacent lock – ‘the failed lock’ because it didn’t work as it was supposed to when first built in the 16th Century – on the canal that heads south towards Pavia.

The network of waterways, many of which criss-cross the region, but in many cases have sadly been paved over in Milan itself, was developed several hundred years ago to facilitate trade and formed a crucial part of Lombardy’s infrastructure, the likes of Leonardo da Vinci helping plan its development.

The race still passes this spot each year, other than nine months ago when the start was held in the small town of Abbiategrasso, just southwest of the city, because police resources were seen as better diverted to that weekend’s Milan Marathon.

In this most money-obsessed of Italian cities, it’s the Lira – or nowadays, the euro – that talks.

Anywhere else, I’d probably have celebrated my visit by enjoying a meal, but that will never happen here, and not just because the osteria is closed on Christmas Day; its speciality is plates featuring horse and donkey meat, and I’ll give that one a pass, thank you.

That wreath on the wall of the osteria, by the way? You’ll find these all over Italy, they commemorate partisans who fell when fighting to free the country from Fascist and Nazi forces during World War II.

Conca Fallata 4

Where I am now, on the southern outskirts of Milan, they can be found on many street corners, and this one marks the birthplace of Giovanni Paghini who, aged just 17, was killed nearby on 25 April 1945, that date still commemorated throughout Italy as the day the country was liberated.

I imagine a 10-year-old Giovanni in 1938 watching sporting heroes such as Gino Bartali ride past his front door, and I hold back a tear or two.

The walk to and from the canal underlined something I’ve mentioned on social media before, however – just how poor provision is for pedestrians often is in Italy.

Both on the way out and the return trip, I had to pass over the A7 Milan-Genoa autostrada, with Google Maps not showing any safe walking routes that would enable me to avoid the slip roads without taking a huge diversion that would make it impossible for me to get back home in time.

The outbound trip was particularly bad, with no pavement whatsoever, meaning I had to pause every so often and move onto the tree-leaf mulch by the roadside whenever a car approached.

On my way back, after crossing an impressive-looking cycle track that runs alongside the canal into the city centre, at least there was a paved path along the road running underneath the railway line and motorway – although on the other side, you’re faced with having to walk a further 100 metres up the ramp before turning round.

Needless to say, rather than the steps or ramps that could have been incorporated into the original design, instead there is a desire ‘path’ that in some ways was reminiscent of assault courses I encountered decades ago during my army training.

Once I’d clambered up the slope and headed through the post-war Quartiere Sant’Ambrogio social housing estate, I passed a ghost bike that has been here for a number of years now, and which I’m told commemorates a nun who was killed by a driver while riding her bike here.

White bike in Barona

Nowadays, Milan is making impressive progress in the provision of safe cycle routes, but it was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of cyclists here.

See you in Bar Zanzibar in San Remo in March?

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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