Chris Froome (Team Sky) safely kept his race lead in the Vuelta a España as there was no change to the general classification after stage 19, despite a concerted attack by Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) in the stage's finale.
Froome finished in the main peloton to retain his one minute and 37 second lead over second-placed Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), with Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) in third at 2-17. Just two stages of the race remain.
Belgian Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) took the stage victory from the day's escape group ahead of Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) in second and Ivan Garcia (Bahrain-Merida) in third.
How it happened
As predicted prior to the stage start, the unfolding of the day was largely dictated by an escape group. A total of 27 riders joined forces to forge a considerable time gap over the bunch, who appeared content to let them fight it out for the stage victory.
An original group consisting of Nicolas Roche (BMC), Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), David Arroyo (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Rui Costa, Matej Mohoric (UAE Team Emirates), Laurens De Vreese (Astana), Jarlinson Pantano, Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), Bob Jungels, Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors), Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Julien Duval (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Floris De Tier, Juan José Lobato (LottoNL-Jumbo), Ivan Garcia (Bahrain-Merida), Daniel Navarro, Kenneth Vanbilsen (Cofidis) and Juan Felipe Osorio (Manzana-Postobon) was later joined by Romain Bardet, Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Carlos Verona (Orica-Scott), Antonio Pedrero, José Joaquin Rojas (Movistar), Simon Clarke (Cannondale-Drapac), Antwan Tolhoek and Koen Bouwman (LottoNL-Jumbo)
King of the Mountains Villella was particularly active in the break, as he grabbed maximum mountain points over the top of the day's opening first category climb of Alto de la Colladona. The 10 points on offer saw him strength his KOM lead over Froome.
Villella also crested the following third category Alto de Sto. Emiliano, but lost out on the Alto de la Falla de Los Lobos as De Gendt had attacked from the break, distancing Villella. By this stage the break's gap over the bunch was around 15 minutes.
A lull in the climbing after the Alto de la Falla de Los Lobos meant that the fragmented groups from the original break joined back together with 50km to go.
Shortly after, Garcia launched an attack from the break, going solo into the final 34km. By 20km to go, Garcia had managed to forge a minute's gap over his former breakaway companions.
As he tackled the final classified climb of the day – Alto de San Martin de Huerces – Garcia's advantage faded quite rapidly and he was joined first by Bardet, then Roche and Costa.
The descent and flatter run-in to the finish gave five other riders – De Gendt, Pantano, De Tier, Jungels and Navarro – a chance to catch the lead four, and still with a 10-minute advantage over the peloton the winner was going to come from this group as they sprinted towards Gijón.
It was heartbreak for local rider Garcia – and for Spain – as he was only just beaten in the sprint to the line by De Gendt and Pantano. The home nation is still without a victory after 19 stages.
Behind the fight for stage honours, Contador had attacked from the peloton in the hope of gaining time on his general classification rivals. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) then attempted to chase him down and protect his fourth pace overall.
Contador put up a good fight, linking up with Theuns who had dropped back from the break to assist him. However, with Sky motoring along at the front of the bunch, his effort came to nothing and he was caught with 2.5km to go. As Contador slotted back into the bunch, he took a moment to shake hands with Froome.
With the bunch all back together, the GC riders finished on the same time, leaving it until the next day's summit finish to definitively settle the podium places.
Saturday's penultimate stage is the last mountain stage, ending in style with a gruelling ascent of the Alto de l'Angliru. It is the last chance for the general classification riders to try and gain time on their rivals before Sunday's flat final stage into Madrid.
Vuelta a España 2017, stage 19: Caso to Gijón, 149.7km
1. Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, in 3-35-46
2. Jarlinson Pantano (Col) Trek-Segafredo
3. Ivan Garcia (Esp) Bahrain-Merida
4. Rui Costa (Por) UAE Team Emirates
5. Floris De Tier (Bel) LottoNL-Jumbo
6. Bob Jungels (Lux) Quick-Step Floors
7. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale
8. Nicolas Roche (Irl) BMC Racing
9. Daniel Navarro (Esp) Cofidis, at same time
10. Koen Bouwman (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 45 secs
29. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky, at 12-15
General classification after stage 19
1. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky, in 75-51-51
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida, at 1-37
3. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 2-17
4. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin, 2-29
5. Alberto Contador (Esp) Trek-Segafredo, at 3-34
6. Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana, at 5-16
7. Michael Woods (Can) Cannondale-Drapac, at 6-33
8. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, at same time
9. Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky, at 6-47
10. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 10-26
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