After an enthralling mano-a-mano battle in the steep closing kilometres, Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) won the Vuelta's twentieth stage on Bola del Mundo. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) doggedly defended his lead to set up Vuelta overall victory tomorrow.
Joined by Nibali after attacking, Mosquera accelerated again inside the diabolically steep final three kilometres, and both men gave their all in pursuit of Vuelta victory.
However, the dozen-odd seconds Mosquera clung onto evaporated in the final kilometre, as Nibali caught him 100 metres from the line to make sure of his first Grand Tour victory.
On the 172km twentieth stage of the race between San Martin de Valdeiglesias and Bola del Mundo, a seventeen-man break, including the likes of Philippe Gilbert and David Arroyo, was given little rope.
Once the last remaining fugitive, Blel Kadri, was caught with nine kilometres to go, the gradient and tension slowly ramped up on the Bola del Mundo, and the hope that this never-before-included climb would provide a fitting finale to an exciting Vuelta was fulfilled.
Looking to take back fifty seconds on Liquigas rider Nibali to claim overall victory, Mosquera first attacked with five kilometres to go after an attempt from Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank).
Nibali crossed the gap to join him as they turned onto the access road, which heralded the start of the steep climbing and an exciting head-to-head fight for the Vuelta overall.
Mosquera pulled away again into the tunnel of fervent Spanish fans, dancing out of the saddle. In stark contrast, Nibali largely strained in the saddle, elbows out and head lolling in the latter stages of his dogged chase.
Twenty seconds down the road, Schleck, Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia), Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) were grouped together in their fight for the lower placings.
With a maximum advantage of 19 seconds, the Spaniard's valiant effort ultimately never yielded a big enough advantage. On the narrow cement ribbon of road leading to the summit, Nibali could always see his quarry.
Up through the mist and onto the final lung-bursting ramp in the closing 600 metres, the Italian gained strength and moved up to his rival's wheel.
With the finish line beckoning, Mosquera accelerated one more time, and crossed it with a half-grimace, half-smile.
He won the battle - and took the twenty bonus seconds at the top - but Vincenzo Nibali will claim the overall title tomorrow, making him the first Italian winner since Marco Giovannetti in 1990.
Behind, Rodriguez was best of the rest, finishing ahead of Schleck and Roche. Slovakian youngster Peter Velits did enough to maintain his third place overall ahead of tomorrow's concluding stage.
The pan-flat 85km offering takes the race into Madrid, and offers Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) an opportunity to claim his fourth stage of the race and the green points jersey.
Vuelta a Espana 2010, stage 20: San Martin de Valdeiglesias-Bola del Mundo
1. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo-Galicia 172km in 4-45-28
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 1sec
3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 23secs
4. Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 35secs
5. Xavier Tondo (Spa) Cervelo Test Team at 39secs
6. Nicolas Roche (Ire) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 42secs
7. Mikel Nieve (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 50secs
8. Peter Velits (Svk) HTC-Columbia at 52secs
9. Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Francaise des Jeux at 55secs
10. Remy di Gregorio (Fra) Francaise des Jeux at 1-00
General classification after stage 20
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas 85-16-05
2. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo-Galicia at 41secs
3. Peter Velits (Svk) HTC-Columbia at 3-02
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 4-20
5. Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 4-43
6. Xavier Tondo (Spa) Cervelo Test Team at 4-52
7. Nicholas Roche (Ire) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 5-03
8. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo Test Team at 6-06
9. Tom Danielson (Usa) Garmin-Transitions at 6-09
10. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 7-35
Bola del Mundo
Frank schleck attacks wth eventual stage winner Ezequiel Mosquera right behind him
Ezequiel Mosquera takes the stage win, but Vincenzo Nibali is set to win overall
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