By Jean-François Quénet in Beijing, China
Perutnina's Matija Kvasina will make his Olympic Games debut this weekend, as Croatia's first Olympic cyclist. Created in 1990, after the division of Yugoslavia, Croatia didn't have anyone to line-up at the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992.
"After the war, cycling didn't exist anymore in Croatia, we all started from zero," said the 27 year-old from Zagreb.
It's only recently that Croatia has produced professional riders. The rise in the country's cycling activities saw it score enough points in last year's European Tour to qualify for three Olympic places.
The first one was designated to Vladimir Miholjevic (Liquigas), who doesn't score European Tour points as he rides for a ProTour team. "He's the number [one rider] and he has done a lot for cycling in Croatia," said Kvasina, who was one of the six point scorers who contributed to earning the nation's Olympic berths.
Kvasina's Perutnina team-mate Radoslav Rogina, who finished 20th at the UCI World Championship in Stuttgart, Germany last year, fills the third Olympic spot. All three riders knew about their Olympic qualification at the end of September, 2007.
"We might be a small cycling nation, but since we are at the Olympic village now, we all dream of a medal," said Kvasina. "We sleep in the same conditions as some of the biggest sports stars in the world, so why not dream?"
The Croatians have good reason to dream, after all Portugal's Sergio Paulinho's silver medal in Athens, Greece, four years was a huge surprise to most. While training on Tuesday Kvasina met the Russian squad at the village, said hello to Spain's gold medal contender Alejandro Valverde and gave direction to Jens Voigt, who got lost.
"At the restaurant I saw Rafael Nadal, but he didn't have five minutes to eat because so many athletes wanted to have their photo taken with him," laughed the Croatian.
As a national champion for time trial, Kvasina will also take part in the Olympic time trial event next week. "It's just to represent my country and show that we are here," he said.
Kvasina took three top 10 finishes in a row at the Tour de l'Avenir and won this year's Tour of Serbia, but is yet to receive a start with a big team.
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