There was heartbreak for Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Tony Martin at the Vuelta this afternoon as the double world time trial champion, who had launched a solo attack at the start of today's Stage 6, was caught just metres from the finish line in Caceres, the win going to Saxo-Tinkoff's Michael Mørkøv.
The Danish national champion, himself a winner of the rainbow jersey on the track, takes the first Grand Tour stage win of his career at the age of 28.
However, the day belonged to Martin who had appeared to be about to be caught with a little more than 10 kilometres of the 175 kilometre stage from Guijuelo remaining, but managed to hold off the chasing peloton for all but those fateful final few metres.
For the second day running, Lampre-Merida's Maximiliano Richeze finished second, while RadioShack-Leopard's Fabian Cancellara was third.
Martin himself finished seventh, having set a blistering pace of 44.8 kilometres an hour for a stage on which he was out on his own until that latest of catches. Naturally, he takes the day's combativity prize.
Astana's Vincenzo Nibali retains the race lead.
When Martin attacked at the beginning of the stage, one rider tried to go after him – former Italian national time trial champion, Marco Pinotti of BMC Racing, his former team mate at HTC Highroad.
Pinotti himself had said this morning that today’s stage was an ideal opportunity to go on the break as preparation for the world time trial championship in Florence next month, but his move in pursuit of Martin was quickly shut down.
¡Toro! (copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson)
The 28-year-old German, looking to win his third successive world title in the discipline next month, had a lead of more than 7 minutes at one point, but as the race headed into its final 20 kilometres appeared to be in some discomfort, and a bunch sprint seemed the inevitable conclusion to the stage.
Heading into the final 5 kilometres, however, he had teased his advantage back out to around a quarter of a minute, and despite Argos-Shimano and Orica-GreenEdge helping lead the charge, the impossible – and with it, one of the all-time great Grand Tour solo rides – looked like it might just happen.
At 2 kilometres, the advantage was still 9 seconds; under the flamme rouge for the final 1,000 metres, it was 6 seconds.
No-one would have begrudged Martin, winner of a Giro time trial stage in 2011 his first road stage win in the Spanish Grand Tour; it wasn’t to be, but his brave attempt will long be remembered.
Afterwards, he said: "It was an unusual time trial of almost four hours. I decided to enter the breakaway to try and protect the team. Because even if I was caught, in the final we will also have Gianni Meersman and Andrew Fenn able to do something good in the sprint. So, I decided to go and suddenly I was alone but I took immediately a few minutes. At that point I said, why not?
"Actually I think it was a good move. I always went pretty good. I have to say the tailwind helped me. Without it, there was no chance to go until the end. In the final the gap was really small. At 10km to go they were really close, and I thought about giving up. But no, I decided to relaunch the action and then I started thinking when they couldnt close the gap that maybe I can do it after all.
"But, I was tired with 5km to go, the parcour was hard in the final and worked against me with some small uphills, and also the peloton was going full gas. I stayed focused on the finish line. It was a strange feeling. I saw the stripe of the finish line and could hear the peloton behind at the same time. But I was really going all out with my legs. I couldn't go any faster than I did in the last 200 metres. Unfortunately, they caught me.
"As usual when you do something like that it's always bittersweet. From one end you think you could have won with a bit more luck. On the other hand I felt like a winner. Everybody wanted to talk with me after the finish. I had the feeling I did something great and difficult. I also went to the podium for the combativity award. It was really special to be there in front of the public.
"If I want to think positively it was also great training for the World Championships. The line between doing something super and losing is really thin in this sport, but you have to try. I think it was the first time I did a breakaway like this, especially for so long. Even if I didn't win I will have it in my memories for a long time."
Michael Mørkøv wins Vuelta 2013 Stage 6 (copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson)
Following his victory, Mørkøv, whose only previous pro win on the road was the Danish national championship earlier this year, said: "I’ve been a world champion and an Olympic medallist on the track. I’ve not participated in bunch sprints before but I knew the circumstances of today’s finale were all right for me to use the speed I got from training and racing on the track. I had a bit of luck too. Without Fabian Cancellara’s chase, we wouldn’t have caught Tony Martin.
"I felt good in the last ten kilometres. I realised I had some kick left. It was a question of positioning in the field. I found the right spot behind Cancellara who did a long sprint and I used this kick with 200 metres to go. I had this amazing feeling that I could probably win. Indeed, it’s very special to make it."
Mørkøv had a spell in the polka dot jersey in his debut Tour de France last year but didn't make the team for this year's 100th edition of that race. He reflected: "It hurt me because I was well prepared for racing. I was in my best shape ever. But we know the game. Part of it is not being selected.
"I just changed my focus to the Vuelta and now, I’m very happy about that. In the first part of this season, our team Saxo-Tinkoff was maybe not as successful in terms of victories as usual but the two wins we already got [team mate Nicolas Roche won Stage 2] bring a great morale in the squad."
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.