A sprint won by Alessandro Petacchi remains the most likely scenario, but by no means a foregone conPIC BY TIM DE WAELE MADRID - Despite being "watered down" for the second time in two days, the route which plays host to today's world road race championship continued to divide opinion in the hours leading up to the Madrid showcase. The removal from the 21km circuit of arguably its hardest 400-metre stretch, at the end of the Avenida Carneal Herrara climb, still hasn't convinced everyone that the race is destined to finish in a bunch sprint. Italian national selector Franco Ballerini, who for obvious reasons is banking on a blanket finish, said on Saturday that "the sting might have been taken out the climb". Would-be spoilers like Alexandre Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde and even Petacchi's Italian team-mate, Paolo Bettini,remain undeterred. Vinokourov, who has been tipped to do on the Paseo de la Castellano what he did on the Champs Elysees at the Tour de France, said yesterday that "anything is possible on a circuit like this." "I feel on good form and, if there's an opening, I don't want to miss it," said Vinokourov, who can count on the support of an eight-man Kazakh team- one of the biggest and strongest in the race. Valverde has raced just once since the Tour de France due largely to the knee problems which forced him out of the Grande Boucle, but will lack neither confidence nor support. Earlier this week, the Murcian claimed that he felt "at least as good, if not better than at the Tour de France." Valverde added yesterday that he "doesn't believe that this is a course for sprinters." Valverde's only reservation, it seems, is his ability to last the distance. Fortunately for Spanish coach Paco Antequara, the presence in his team of Juan Antonio Flecha, Igor Astarloa and Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero may lessen the blow of reigning world champion Oscar Friere's unavailability through injury. Flecha, whose signing for Rabobank has been confirmed this week, believes that there will be a "whittling down process as the laps go by, which could favour an attacking rider". Olympic champion Bettini, privately, will be hoping that Flecha is right. Ballerini is adamant that the Italians will be entirely devoted to Petacchi's cause, but he also acknowledges that Bettini offers a multitude of options: should he find himself in a break, the Quick-Step rider won't be expected to work and would be a shoe-in in a sprint; if Petacchi's legs desert him, the gradual rise up the Castellano is the kind of finale where Bettini has beaten pure sprinters in the past. Bettini's motivation and confidence are also sky-high. At odds of around 25-1, procycling certainly considers Bettini worthy of a punt.