The Frenchman rode alongside a dominant Simon Yates but passed the Brit in the dying moments
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) claimed a second brutal mountain-top victory on stage 19 of the Vuelta a España.
The Frenchman was able to follow the strongest climbers on the Coll de la Rabassa and snuck past Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) just 200 metres from the finish to claim the win.
Yates proved himself a worthy race leader, finishing second on the stage and distancing his nearest rival Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) by more than a minute.
Valverde was able to hold onto his second place overall, while LottoNL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk reclaimed the final podium spot after finishing just 13 seconds behind Yates.
How it happened
The return to the GC battle kicked off with a 154km stretch through the Andorran mountains and finishing at the top of the Coll de la Rabassa.
There were no categorised climbs on the run in to the final test, but the peloton slowly and consistently gained altitude until things ramped up in the final 20km.
Coll de la Rabbassa is a leg-breaking 17.5km mountain, averaging 6.3% gradient with a maximum of 13.75% in the first kilometre.
Racing was furious and frantic over the opening 60km, with riders fighting for an advantage before the first category test to the finish.
After 40km of hard fighting, three riders were able to break clear from the peloton.
Within five kilometres of escaping, Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), stage five winner Simon Clarke (EF Education First-Drapac) and Amanual Ghebreigzabhier (Dimension Data) had built up a lead of 1-35.
Movistar, showing their intentions early on, chased down the group and reduced the gap to less than a minute.
But the three riders pushed on, drawing out a 90 second advantage before Simon Clarke sat up and rejoined the bunch with just under 100km to ride.
More attacks from the peloton followed and seven riders bridged over to Kwiatkowski and Ghebreigzabhier, followed by three more.
Movistar were alert to the danger of the growing breakaway, and ramped up the power and brought back the escapees with 90km remaining.
Despite persistent attacks from Team Sky and EF Education First-Drapac, Movistar refused to let a move go clear, as the Spanish team controlled the race for their best-placed GC contender Alejandro Valverde.
Finally two riders were given enough room to build up an advantage – Benjamin Thomas (Groupama-FDJ) and Team Sky’s Jonathan Castroviejo opened up a gap of just over a minute with 70km left to ride.
Tom Van Asbroeck (Education First-Drapac) helped draw out the gap but sat up from the breakaway and returned to the bunch shortly after.
The tension eased over the middle section of the race, until Movistar fired up again with 35km to go and caused a split in the peloton.
Mitchelton-Scott and Simon Yates found themselves caught off-guard by the sudden injection of speed, but Bora-Hansgrohe chased down Movistar and neutralised the split.
The breakaway were steadily reeled back in and were finally swept up by the peloton at the very foot of the climb.
Movistar attacked the early slopes, Winner Anacona setting the pace on the steepest sections.
Simon Yates looked comfortable in the opening stages of the climb, sitting on the wheel while his Mitchelton-Scott team-mates sat in wait further back in the group.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) attacked with 13km left of the mountain, pulling out a gap.
LottoNL-Jumbo followed with George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk, who sat 24 seconds ahead of the Colombian on GC.
Mitchelton-Scott took on the chase and kept the trio easily within range.
Kruijswijk continued to ride after Bennett fell away, when Thibaut Pinot (Groupama FDJ) jumped across from the peloton 11km from the finish.
Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott) peeled off the chasing group and Simon Yates put in a huge acceleration to jump across to the Quintana group in front within seconds.
Valverde was unable to follow the leader as Yates led the front group up the mountain until Quintana sat up to wait for his Spanish team-mate with 8.5km left to ride.
Pinot, Kruijswijk and Yates worked together built an advantage of 25 seconds back to a nine-rider chasing group, including Valverde.
Quintana punctured as the Yates group gained a one-minute advantage over Valverde, Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) behind.
Quintana made it back to the Valverde group after a rapid wheel change, but the gap to Yates stayed at one minute.
Valverde was finally dropped with just over 1km to go as the chasing group splintered.
Kruijswijk was then dropped from the trio in front.
Pinot snuck past Yates with 200 metres left to ride to take his second stage of this Vuelta, after another powerful display on Lagos de Covadonga on stage 15.
Yates crossed second, followed by Kruijswijk, Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First- Drapac), Lopez and Mas.
Valverde finished more than a minute down on Yates.
Vuelta a España 2018, stage 19: Llieda to Naturlandia (154km)
1. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, in 3-42-05
2. Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott, at 5seconds
3. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 13s
4. Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac, at 52s
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team
6. Enric Mas (Spa) Quick-Step Floors
7. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 1-03
8. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 1-12
9. Tony Gallopin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale, at 1-15
10. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 1-49
Overall classification after stage 19
1 Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott, in 76-44-41
2 Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 1-38
3 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 1-58
4 Enric Mas (Esp) Quick-Step Floors, at 2-15
5 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana, at 2-29
6 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team, at 4-01
7 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, 5-22
8 Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac, at 5-29
9 Ion Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida, at 6-30
10 Tony Gallopin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale, at 7-21