Jarlinson Pantano sprinted to second from the small breakaway group that arrived at the finish of stage 19, and Alberto Contador went on the offensive on the final climb only to be chased back in the long run-in to the line.
It was a typical climbing day at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana with another thrilling performance by Contador, great teamwork by Trek-Segafredo, and a Contador-esque 'never-say-die' fight by Pantano who fought back to the break group numerous times after being dropped.
Pantano explained: "Quite a number of us got in the breakaway, including Eddy (Theuns) and then I was told by the team to save something for the finish because they knew that this finish, in theory, might suit me. It hasn't been my best period over the last few months and today was a real opportunity, so I was highly motivated. You don't get many opportunities like that and I didn't want to waste it.
"We knew that Contador was going to attack at the end, and Eddy is someone who is more useful to him than I would be in such a flat finish, so he was the one to wait for Alberto," Pantano continued.
"Thankfully I was able to be present for the sprint and I finished second. I am really happy with this because I was really suffering over the [categorized climbs]. Of course, I would have loved to win, but that's cycling, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and today I lost to someone who was better."
While Pantano was able to chase back with a few riders after the final ascent to form a group of nine that sprinted for the win, 15 minutes behind, Contador made a bid to gain more time on the two rivals ahead of him in the General Classification.
Koen de Kort burst from the peloton at the bottom of the final category-three uphill with Contador in tow and catapulted him as far as he could. It was enough to open a gap that Contador increased over the next four uphill kilometers, with Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) – his fourth place in jeopardy – giving a frantic chase.
By the top Contador had a lead of nearly one minute, while Zakarin faded back into the Sky-led peloton. On the long 15-kilometer run-in to the finish, Contador connected with Theuns, but it was a gigantic ask for two men against a headwind and two motivated teams, Sunweb and Sky, leading the pursuit behind.
"Well, I expected nothing less," answered Contador about Sky aiding the chase. "I think I have already had the experience other times and it means they want to keep me within a distance they can keep under control. Today was a very difficult stage finish for an attack to make it. All the same, we sent two teammates up the road, one to go for the stage win, who was Pantano, and the other to see if he could give me a hand, just in case."
Unfortunately, the final climb arrived too far from the finish, and with the added headwind, it was impossible for Contador to make inroads in his bid for the final podium. But that did not stop him from trying.
"The head wind was strong, it was very hard to make it. Today I spoke to my mechanic Faustino Muñoz, and I asked him to give me a 55 plate for the descent, but the headwind was blowing hard, and when we saw they were gaining on us we decided we would sit on the wheels and save strength for tomorrow," explained Contador.
When it was apparent the peloton was easily gaining ground, Contador and Theuns sat up, choosing to save all cards for Saturday's penultimate stage. With expected rain in the forecast, the scene is set for an epic final day in the mountains.
"The podium is still a long way away, even if it seems within reach, it is still a long way away, and we have to see how we recover from today. If we can win the stage, it will be a success," said Contador, then added: "I think tomorrow is going to be madness, with the rain, the cold, a fairly short stage. Madness! Let's see. Tomorrow, anything can happen."