Chris Froome dug deep to all but secure fourth overall at the Vuelta a Espana as Team Sky's Richie Porte took second on stage 20.
Porte was the first Team Sky rider across the line on the epic Bola del Mundo finish, the Tasmanian having out-lasted his breakaway counterparts to enter the final metres alongside Denis Menchov.
The Russian (Katusha) would ultimately finish the stronger on the brutal ramps but second was a fine result for Porte to add to a highly-successful season.
Froome was next home after surviving a late scare which saw him cross the line with a flat tyre he had carried for the final 1.5 kilometres.
The effort was enough to see Froome comfortably maintain his GC foothold and a second Grand Tour top-five finish of the year awaits on Sunday in Madrid.
On the final day of climbing Alberto Contador dug deep to all but guarantee himself the race victory, the Spaniard (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff) having come under pressure from his rivals on the final mountain-top finish of the race.
An epic final climb brought the curtain down on the GC battle and it was Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) who hit out on the steep ramps of the 11.4km ascent. After holding the red jersey for the bulk of the race the rider known as ‘Purito’ would have to be satisfied with third place overall.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) held firm to secure second spot, 21 seconds ahead of Rodriguez overall after a spectacular finish that saw riders coming to a near-standstill on ramps touching 23 per cent.
Earlier, with reports of hailstorms at the finish and wet roads early on the peloton wrapped up for a tough day in the saddle as the Vuelta returned to the mountains.
After 18km the pattern was set as a large group of 20 riders, including Porte, went clear ahead of five categorised climbs. Among them Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) made sure of the blue and white polka dot jersey of the mountains competition at the top of the Puerto de la Morcuera.
Back in the pack it was Euskaltel-Euskadi setting the pace, the men in orange seemingly determined to bring the break back despite the gap having spun out to over 10 minutes.
As the sunshine returned the escapees still retained a 6:50 gap over the top of the penultimate climb, the break working well together to guarantee one of them the stage victory.
Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) the first to attack on the lower slopes of the final climb but was unable to sustain the effort, his move acting as the launch pad for the winning dig as Menchov, Porte and Kevin De Weert (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) went clear to make up the day’s top three.
Back in a reduced peloton it was Rodriguez who came to the fore on the steep concrete ramps of the climb, gaping his rivals but unable to alter the podium positions.
1 Denis Menchov (Rus) Katusha Team 4:48:48
2 Richie Porte (Aus) Sky Procycling 0:00:17
3 Kevin De Weert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Quickstep 0:00:42
4 Fredrik Carl Wilhelm Kessiakoff (Swe) Astana Pro Team 0:01:16
5 Romain Sicard (Fra) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:01:39
6 Eros Capecchi (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:02:30
7 Maxime Bouet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:02:39
8 Simon Geschke (Ger) Argos-Shimano 0:03:14
9 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 0:03:31
10 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:03:56
General classification after stage 20
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 82:14:52
2 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:16
3 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 0:01:37
4 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:10:16
5 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:11:29
6 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:12:23
7 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin - Sharp 0:13:28
8 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:13:41
9 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:14:01
10 Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Spa) Movistar Team 0:16:13