With two days remaining, Ivan Basso became the seventh rider to pull on the maglia rosa in the Giro d'Italia. Now he looks poised to clinch overall victory on Sunday.
Michele Scarponi, the Androni Giocattoli rider, won the stage after hitching a ride with Basso and his Liquigas team-mate Vincenzo Nibali from the top of the Mortirolo to the finish in Aprica.
The holder of the pink jersey, Spaniard David Arroyo, fought bravely to limit his losses but after plummeting down the descent from the mighty Mortirolo, he conceded all the ground he'd made up and more on the drag to the finish.
Basso's overall lead going into Saturday's daunting stage that takes in the Gavia - weather-permitting - and the Passo del Tonale, is just 51 seconds.
Arroyo, though, showed that he was very tired. It is seems very unlikely there will be much fight in the Caisse d'Epargne man, who must now dig in to defend his second place against Basso's Liquigas team-mate Vincenzo Nibali.
Basso can sit tight knowing that 51 seconds is enough of an advantage to defend in Sunday's time trial in Verona.
He said: "It was going to be difficult, I saw Arroyo going well in the last two days and he has a strong team. However, on our team we had the roles divided and my men knew what they were going to do. Both Nibali and I could gain the classification. We had a great companion with Scarponi, he worked until the end to make sure we stayed away."
Asked if this year's Giro compares with his 2006 win, which was later overshadowed by a two-year doping ban, he said: "It was a happy time for me today and that was a bad time. The beautiful thing is that I have risen again. What mattered for me was what I did after I returned. Now what matters is on the Gavia tomorrow.
"We knew it would be hard on the descent and on the climb to Aprica. To go all out on the descent takes energy, so maybe Arroyo gained time there. We never under-estimated Arroyo."
Everything went according to plan for the team in lime green. They let an early break of nine go away and set a strong tempo on the front to reel them in as they reached the foot of the Trivigno climb.
On the climb, Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Francesco Failli (Acqua & Sapone), Jackson Rodriguez (Androni Giocattoli) and Branislau Samoilau (Quick Step) dropped the others. Stefano Garzelli attacked from the main group and flew past the stragglers from the lead group. His team-mate Failli dropped back and waited for him and the pair went over the top and reached the leading three on the descent.
On the lower slopes of the Mortirolo, the last in a series of incredibly demanding climbs in this Giro, Garzelli took the lead alone, having passed Rodriguez and Duque. At this point he held a lead of two minutes over Basso's group.
Arroyo, the pink jersey was then dropped, although he wasn't the first big name in trouble. Damiano Cunego went backwards first.
Liquigas still had strength in numbers and they were setting a hard pace until Basso and Nibali pushed clear, taking most of the big names with him.
As they reached the final four kilometres of the climb, Basso, Nibali and Scarponi went away, with Vinokourov and then Evans dropping back.
The three leaders caught Garzelli before the top. Evans was battling to limit his losses and at the top the pattern looked set. Vinokourov had recovered and was now ahead of the Australian. Arroyo was also closing in on Evans at the summit.
On the descent it all changed. Basso, never the most confident when going downhill, especially now a light rain was falling, struggled to keep pace with his team-mate Nibali.
Evans, who was exhausted, almost wobbled off the road into a parked camper van. He was passed by Arroyo who also caught Vinokourov. It was an astonishing descent by the pink jersey.
On the flat, the three leaders found their advantage cut to just 45 seconds. Vinokourov and Arroyo were in no man's land with Evans, John Gadret of AG2R and Carlos Sastre just behind. Those five came together but they left the bulk of the chasing work to be done by Arroyo, who was clearly tiring.
That allowed Nibali and Basso to press on. To be fair to Scarponi, he also contributed and the time gap went up from 45 seconds to a minute, then 1-30, then nearly two minutes as they entered the final six kilometres.
The last climb, nowhere near as difficult as the Mortirolo, was nevertheless critical. Basso and Nibali were able to stretch their advantage to over three minutes by the line.
Scarponi took the sprint comfortably and moved up to fourth. Evans is now 4-00 down overall and out of contention for the win but might fancy his chances of getting on the podium if he can crack Scarponi tomorrow.
Scarponi said: "I didn't speak a lot to Basso. We worked fairly and we had common interests to gain on the GC. Certainly when he had enough time to take the pink jersey I started to think about the stage."
Richie Porte, the 25-year-old Australian riding his first grand tour slipped to seventh but is still hanging onto the hope of a top ten finish.
Tomorrow's 20th stage goes over several climbs, including the Gavia, although that will be subject to the weather. Reports are of snow at the summit and the organisers will make a decision on whether it is safe to pass.
For Basso, four years after his other Giro d'Italia victory - one which was inevitably tarnished by his subsequent involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping investigation - victory is once again within touching distance.
Stage 19 as it happened, live coverage>>
Stage 19: Brescia - Aprica, 195km
1. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli in 5-27-04
2. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas both same time
4 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana at 3-05
5 John Gadret (Fra) Ag2r same time
6 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC at 3-06
7 David Arroyo (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
8 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo both same time
9 Branislau Samoilau (Blr) Quick Step at 5-27
10 Marco Pinotti (Ita) HTC-Columbia at 5-27
14 Richie Porte (Aus) Saxo Bank at 5-31
16 Dario Cioni (Ita) Team Sky at 8-17
17 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre same time
28 Charly Wegelius (GB) Omega Pharma at 10-44
75 Daniel Lloyd (GB) Cervelo at 27-26
131 Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 35-17
143 Steve Cummings (GB) Team Sky same time
1 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas
2 David Arroyo (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 51sec
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 2-30
4 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Androni Giocattoli at 2-49
5 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC at 4-00
6 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervelo at 5-32
7 Richie Porte (Aus) Saxo Bank at 6-00
8 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana at 6-02
9 Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) Liquigas at 12-44
10 Marco Pinotti (Ita) HTC-Columbia at 13-40
17 Dario Cioni (Ita) Team Sky at 29-50
35 Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 1-10-34
Points Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing
KOM Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas
Young rider Richie Porte (Aus) Saxo Bank
Michele Scarponi, Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali
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