Italy's Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo) set up overall victory at the Vuelta a España thanks to a determined but intelligent defence of his red jersey on the final mountain stage of the race.
Nibali finished just one second behind his biggest rival Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) at the mountain top finish on the Bola del Mundo climb and so now has a 41-second lead going into Sunday's final 85Km criterium stage in the centre of Madrid.
If Nibali goes on to win the Vuelta, he will be the first Italian to do so since Marco Giovanetti in 1990, when the race was still held in late April. He will be only the fifth Italian to triumph in Spain in the 75-year history of the Vuelta.
Mosquera won the stage but Nibali caught him just before the line after a nail-biting pursuit up the steep concrete track to the summit of the climb. At one point Mosquera had close to a 20-second gap and Nibali seemed to be struggling on the 15 per cent climb. However the young Italian kept his composure and the red race leader's jersey.
"I think I did an exceptional ride," Nibali told Italian television immediately after the finish, almost in tears as he recovered from his huge effort.
"I knew I was feeling good and I knew I had a strong team there to help me. I knew that Mosquera would have to be super good to beat me but he wasn't. What else can I say? I'm really happy."
Nibali was pitted against a determined Mosquera who tried again and again to distance him in the final kilometres.
"The Spanish riders have been really strong here and they've made my life complicated. Today, I knew the final three kilometres were the most difficult ones, I had seen it my director's computer this morning. When Mosquera accelerated the first time, I set my pace as steady as I could, I also kept some strength for the finale and that's why I never lost control of the situation and I even managed to come across to him and save my red jersey."
As Mosquera and Nibali battled ahead, the race for third place unfolded behind with Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) fighting hard to hang on to third place overall. He came in a handful of seconds behind his nearest rivals, confirming he is the big surprise of this year's overall classification.
The Slovakian rider finished eighth at the top of the climb, only 52 seconds behind Mosquera. He lost some time to Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) and Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) but is now 3:02 behind Nibali. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) is fourth overall at 4:20 and Schleck is fifth at 4:43.
"When Rodriguez attacked, it was the steepest part of the climb, so it was the hardest for me. I've suffered a lot but it was worth it. I'm so happy to finish third of the Vuelta. I couldn't have expected anything better at the start in Sevilla," Velits said.
While Schleck was not able to make up for his poor time trial and climb back onto the Tour of Spain podium, his director Bradley McGee was encouraged by the experience of directing the team to a top finish.
"Fränk Schleck's fifth place at the end is pretty good. I've enjoyed the Vuelta a lot," said McGee. "The course was great and the actors have been great too. I'm looking forward to come back next year. It should be with a Spanish leader (Alberto Contador) in our team if everything goes according the plan."
Irishman Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-LaMondiale) went deep to finish sixth on the stage and so held onto seventh place overall, 4:43 behind Nibali, a result which encouraged him for future GC battles.
"I've improved a lot but I can see that I still have a lot to improve. We had a bad team time trial, I had a bad individual time trial and I found climbing to Andorra difficult. The most encouraging of my final result is that I haven't benefitted from any breakaway. I've been fighting all the time with the best riders in the hills. It makes it super encouraging for the future."
The USA's Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) had a difficult day and finished 17th on the stage, losing 1:46 to Mosquera. But he only lost one place overall to Carlos Sastre (Cervelo TestTeam), and so is set to finish ninth overall at 6:09.