Alberto Contador all but claimed victory in the Vuelta a Espana as the Tinkoff-Saxo rider pulled away from Chris Froome on the final climb of the Tour to claim his second stage win.
With only today’s time trial in Santiago de Compostela to come, the Spaniard has a lead of one minute 37 seconds over Team Sky’s Froome, who surely knew as he watched his rival dance clear that he would have to settle for second.
The pair arrived here three weeks ago both questioning their own form after recovering from injuries suffered in the Tour de France, but the race came down to them alone – and so did the final stage – a 185.7km run from Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil with four categorised climbs.
They approached the last of them – a punishing rise to Puerto de Ancares with gradients up to 18 per cent – along with Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez, third and fourth in the general classifications respectively with the battle for podium places very much on.
Katusha’s Rodriguez attacked first, nine kilometres from the summit, forcing a response from Movistar rider Valverde.
Froome continued to pace himself with Contador stuck to his wheel and gradually they reeled the others back in.
Valverde was dropped with 6.5km to go and they soon caught Rodriguez.
Once he was left 4.3km from the top, it was a straight fight to the summit.
While Contador’s recovery from the broken tibia suffered in France has been remarkable, allowing him to take control of this race in the second week, Froome – victim of a broken bone in his wrist in France – has been the man in form over the past few days and it was all to play for between the two.
Contador hung on Froome’s wheel until the road kicked up one final time 2km from the top.
Froome tried to push clear but Contador waited before bursting past, and from that moment on all that might have stopped him were some over-excited fans jostling one another on the road as the security services struggled to control them.
Froome eventually came home 15 seconds behind Contador and, when he found the Spaniard giving television interviews at the summit, there was a brief handshake between the two. Valverde rolled home 56 seconds back on Contador, crucially 20 seconds ahead of Rodriguez which should lock up the final podium place.
“My strategy was simple, as long as my legs responded,” Contador said. “I had to stay next to Froome and not let him get out of sight. I had an advantage of already being ahead, and now I couldn’t be happier.”
Contador curbed his expectations coming into the three-week event after recovering from a broken right shin that knocked him out of the Tour on 15 July.
Now he is on the verge of winning his homeland’s biggest race for the third time after victories in 2008 and 2012.
“This is a great victory for me,” he said. “We were able to open up a gap that, barring a mishap, should win me the Vuelta. But we still have to wait until Sunday.”