FIERCE competition is expected in the Kent Tour of China prologue at Sha Tin today as the sharp individual time trial could have an important bearing on the overall result of the 500-kilometre race. The prologue, held within the compound of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club and the Hong Kong Sports Institute, is only 2.8 kilometres but the top professionals are taking it as a major stop. Saturn team rider Norman Alvis said the time trials - both today and the final stop in Beijing on November 5 - could decide the Tour champion. 'I don't think there could be many opportunities of gaining time on the road because most of the stages are short and the courses are relatively flat,' said Alvis, the top American hope from Sacramento, California. 'The championship could come down to the time trials and it should favour me and sprinters like Daniele Nardello [of Italy] and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov [of Uzbekistan].' Two other Americans fancied to do well are Steve Hegg of the USPro team and Saturn's track sprint specialist Mike McCarthy, the 1992 pursuit world champion. McCarthy, the pursuit bronze medal winner at the World Championships in Colombia three weeks ago, has also proven himself to be a solid all-rounder by winning the Tour of Taiwan earlier this year. However, McCarthy is afraid that the demanding penultimate stop - a 132-kilometre climb from Hairou up to The Great Wall - would kill off his chances. 'I've not done anything on the road since the beginning of July because I've been preparing for the World Championships. It's a challenge to be back on the road again,' the 27-year-old New Yorker said. Italian Nardello of team Mapei-GB also thinks that the fifth stage will be the decider as the long grinding climb up The Great Wall will separate the men from the boys. Mapei-GB is the world's number one ranking team who also have in their lineup two other pre-tour favourites in Andrea Chiurato and Frederico Colonna. However, said team director Patrick Lefevere: 'This is an important race for us because our company has a lot of interest in this sector [Asia]. 'We have seven good riders and our tactic is always to have someone in the front.'