Chris Froome (Team Sky) was unable to overturn a 1-21 deficit to Vuelta a España leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on the penultimate stage of the race, coming in just behind the Colombian and applauding him as they crossed the line.
Pierre Latour won the hard fought final mountain stage from the breakaway, narrowly beating Darwin Atapuma (BMC) as the pair battled it out in the final kilometres to Alto Aitana.
193.2km stage from Benidorm represented Froome’s last chance to overturn the time gap and take victory in the Vuelta, but Movistar set their stall out early in dominating the front of the peloton over opening climbs of the day.
Froome and his Sky teammates attempted to split the main bunch after the descent from the category two Coll de Rates, but were unable to make inroads. Meanwhile, the breakaway still struggled to establish as riders continually attacked.
Eventually Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) and Rudy Molard (Cofidis) found themselves (almost reluctantly) with a minute or so lead with more than 140km remaining, and stretched that out to know more than around 1-40 on the second group.
The second group of around 15 riders formed shortly after, with the likes of Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Kenny Elissonde (FDJ), Mathias Frank (IAM) Valerio Conti (Lampre-Merida), as well as Latour and Atapuma present, and Movistar seemed content to let them go with the gap to the peloton stretching out to over 10 minutes.
And that’s how it remained until the penultimate climb, when third place Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) attacked with 40km to go to try and overturn the deficit he had to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) who sat above him in third overall.
Contador, isolated with no teammates, was unable to immediately respond and saw Chaves move up the road to join teammate Damian Howson who had dropped back from the breakaway. The pair quickly put over two minutes into the Spaniard, who’s teammate Yuri Trofimov also dropped back from the breakaway to help with the chase.
Upfront things began breaking up and Sanchez found himself riding alone with 12km to go on the 20km climb. The Spaniard held a 30 second gap for some time as Conti attempted to chase, but eventually the remaining riders from the second group caught and passed him with 4.7km to go.
Attacks quickly came at that point, with Atapuma, Frank and Latour finding themselves out front and battling it out. Colmbian Atapuma looked the most explosive on the climb, and his constant accelerations saw Frank eventually shelled out the back.
But 22-year-old Frenchman Latour wasn’t dropped so easily, making his own attacks, but looked in trouble as Atapuma made a move in the final kilometre.
With 300 metres to go through Latour seemed to muster some strength to make one last dig to make it back to the BMC rider, with Atapuma then having no response as Latour made a sprint for the finish line, taking his first Grand Tour stage victory.
Chaves followed in around 3-17 behind, taking seventh on the stage but holding his gap to the peloton, and then faced an agonising wait to see if Contador could finish within 1-11 of his time to retain a podium spot.
The main bunch further down the mountain were now whittled down to just the main GC contenders, and with Leopold König’s final acceleration to set Froome up for an attack, it was just the top two in GC left to battle it out.
There was very little Froome could do though, with Quintana looking comfortable on his wheel as the Tour de France winner made constant attacks. The pair entered the final kilometre side by side, and Froome showed the toll of his efforts as Quintana was able to sprint ahead for the line and grab a couple of seconds to all but confirm his overall victory.
There was misery for Contador though, who finished 1-24 down on Chaves at the line and lost his third place to the young Colombian.
The peloton will face one more stage on the year’s final Grand Tour; a flat 104.8km stage to Madrid, which should see a bunch finish and Quintana confirmed as the 2016 winner
Vuelta a España stage 20, Benidorm – Alto Aitana (193.2km)
1. Pierre Latour (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale, in
2. Darwin Atapuma (Col) BMC Racing, at 2s
3. Fabio Felline (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 17s
4. Mathias Frank (Sui) IAM Cyling, at 40s
5. Robert Gesink (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 1-03
6. Bart de Clerq (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, at 1-28
7. Rudy Molard (Fra) Cofidis, at 2-02
8. Lilian Calmejane (Fra) Direct Energie, at 3-01
9. Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-BikeExchange, at 3-17
10. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 4-03
11. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky, at 4-05
13. Alberto Contador (Esp) Tinkoff, at 4-41
14. Simon Yates (GBr) Orica-BikeExchange, at 5-04
Overall classification after stage 20
1. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar in 75-18-52
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 1-23
3. Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-BikeExchange at 4-08
4. Alberto Contador (Esp) Tinkoff at 4-21
5. Andrew Talasky (USA) Cannondale-Drapac at 7-43
6. Simon Yates (GBr) Orica-BikeExchange at 8-33
7. David de la Cruz (Esp) Etixx-QuickStep at 11-18
8. Daniel Moreno (Esp) Movistar at 13-04
9. Davide Formolo (Ita) Cannondale-Drapac at 13-17
10. George Bennett (NZl) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 14-07