Team Sky's Vasil Kiryienka, a member of the team that helped Chris Froome win the Tour de France in July, went on a solo attack with 45km left of today's Vuelta Stage 18 to clinch victory on the punishing ascent of the Peña Cabarga above the port of Santander. Behind him, on ramps that went up to 20 per cent in places, RadioShack-Nissan's Chris Horner attacked race leader Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, who had led by 28 seconds this morning. That gap has now been slashed to just 3 seconds.
Horner finished sixth on the stage and Nibali, clearly in trouble on the tough, final part of the 5.9km climb, tenth. There's a Category 2 summit finish tomorrow, above the city of Oviedo in the Asturias region, but the race will most likely be decided on the fabled climb of the Angliru on Saturday.
Horner, who turns 42 next month, is seeking to become the oldest man ever to win a Grand Tour, while Nibali, winner of the Giro d'Italia in May, would become the first man since Alberto Contador completed a Giro and Vuelta double in 2008 to win two Grand Tours in the same season.
On Stage 14 of the 2010 Vuelta, Nibali, then with Liquigas, had lost 20 seconds on the Peña Cabarga to Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, the stage winner.
Race leader Igor Anton of Euskaltel-Euskadi had crashed shortly before that final climb, however, and it was Nibali who took over the race lead that evening.
He would lose the red jersey to Rodriquez on Stage 16 but won it back the following day, and kept it all the way to Madrid to seal his first Grand Tour win.
Today, it was Nibali who hit the final climb in the leader’s jersey, but by the top of the ascent he would be hanging onto it by a thread.
Only the fact that four members of the day’s break crossed the line ahead of Horner prevented the American from picking up a time bonus that would have seen him move to the top of the General Classification.
Of the riders ahead of him, Saxo-Tinkoff’s Chris Anker Sorensen and Adam Hansen of Lotto Belisol finished second and third respectively to mop up the remaining bonus seconds on offer.
On the first half of the climb, where the maximum gradient was 12 per cent Nibali had tracked Horner, but it was once the overall contenders hit the last 2km following a flatter section that battle was joined in earnest.
Horner looks to get away from Nibali (© Unipublic/Graham Watson)
As they headed onto the second, and more taxing, part of that final ascent, Nibali and third placed rider overall, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, made contact as they rounded a bend and fought to stay on Horner's wheel.
Valverde was dropped immediately, while Nibali would cling on to Horner until the American put down the hammer on the steepest section.
By the time Nibali crossed the line, Horner had taken more than 20 seconds out of him for the second time this week, and the Italian, apparently invulnerable when winning the Giro this year, had also been overhauled by a now recovered Valverde.
Reflecting on the day, Nibali said: "It’s been a very eventful stage. I was going very well today and I intended to gain some time over my rivals, but Horner has demonstrated to being too agile. I thought I had the race under control when he rode away. He got me off his wheel! At the age of 42, he’s very strong!
"For sure it’s going to be difficult to beat him if he doesn’t have any moment of weakness. Even Rodriguez has tried to drop him off and didn’t succeed. Movistar has set a very high pace. But Horner is definitely the strongest.
"I’m not optimistic, I’m not pessimistic, I take this result with philosophy. I came to the Vuelta to do my best. I also wanted to win a stage and I’ve not achieved that yet. But my condition has been excellent up to now. I’m still the race leader and I still believe in my chances.”
“Three seconds," mused Horner following the stage. "I guess if won’t matter either way if I get dropped on one of the next two stages. We’ll have to see how things go. I can’t stress on three seconds right now.
"I made up a lot of time today and the gap is smaller; that’s what is important to me. The team is fantastic, I just can’t thank them enough."
While Nibali had ridden the Peña Cabarga climb twice before - that day he took the lead in 2010, and again the following year when Sky's Froome took the win - Horner confessed he hadn't tackled it before, despite once being a local.
"When I rode with Saunier Duval back in 2005 I lived in an apartment right over there but I never rode up this climb so I didn’t know it too well.
"But it was so steep it didn’t matter much.
"I let my legs recover on the one section that isn’t so steep, maybe that is where I lost three seconds.
"I’m at my best when the climb is the steepest and there is no draft so I can just go my hardest.”
Certainly Horner seemed a lot more upeat following the stage than Nibali.
"Saturday’s climb [of the Angliru] is the better day for me, but when you are going against the best guys in the world, you have to pay attention on every stage.
"Tomorrow could be a game of tactics. I thought I could take the jersey today but I was three seconds off. I felt confident today and very fresh from the hard work Cancellara did yesterday."
After paying tribute to the team mates who had worked for him during the stage, he added: "It was a good day, I enjoyed it.
"I just need to keep my form for another few days to get the red jersey and take it to Madrid.”
Away from the drama of the General Classification, Kiryienka, who had taken a solo victory on Stage 20 of the 2011 Giro d’Italia when riding for Caisse d’Epargne, rode strongly up the final climb to take a convincing victory, Sorensen crossing the line nearly half a minute behind him.
Kiryienka, who had helped set up Froome’s convincing victory at Ax 3 Domaines on Stage 8 of the Tour de France but found himself out of the race after missing the time limit the following day as Movistar launched a wave of attacks, had been in a group of 15 riders that got away 18km into today’s 186.5km stage from Burgos.
At one point the escapees had a lead of around 10 minutes on a stage with a route featuring a trio of Category 3 climbs followed by the Category 2 Alto del Caracol, crested around 40km from the finish, and it was on that climb that Kiryienka made what would be his stage winning move.
“I knew that my lead at the bottom of the final climb allowed me to win but I had to keep a steady pace, without thinking too much of what was happening behind," said the Belarusian afterwards.
"The fans [who packed the climb and were overexuberant at times] gave me a hard time.
"This is my third Vuelta. I had won stages at the Giro and the Tour but I only came second here. I badly wanted to win. That’s done.
"All my wins have come the same way from long breakaways. They’re due to an honest work and the trust of my team.
"My kisses on the finishing line were for my wife and kids but I dedicate this stage to Daniele Tortoli.
"He was my directeur sportif in the amateur ranks, he helped me turn pro and he died in July.
"I also had a bad time at Tour de France but I thank my team for having kept my morale high.”
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.