Vincenzo Nibali refused to be beaten down on the steep slopes of the Bella del Mundo on Saturday and survived the last mountain stage of the Vuelta a Espana in first place overall.
Try as he might, challenger Ezequiel Mosquera couldn't put away Nibali on the final climb. Mosquera at one point had a 20-second lead over the Italian near the summit, but Nibali battled back in the fog and finished right on Mosquera's wheel.
Barring a catastrophe in the final stage, Nibali is set to win the Vuelta championship on Sunday in Madrid.
The penultimate stage of the Vuelta dawned with Mosquera, 34, 50 seconds behind Nibali, 25, in the contest for the overall lead. The peloton faced a 106-mile stage with one Category 3 and two Category 1 ascents before the final climb to the maximum 20% slopes on the Bella del Mundo.
Nibali (Liquigas) was riding to protect the lead, and Peter Velits (HTC Columbia) was riding to protect a 3rd place podium finish from the likes of Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha).
The overall leaders marked each other all day as other riders made failed breakaway attempts. The leaders' group regained control of the race with 5.5 miles to go on the final climb.
Finally, an attack by Schleck with 3.5 miles to go sparked the fireworks. The Luxembourg cyclist couldn't stay away for long as Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) caught and passed him with Nibali on his rear wheel.
The Spaniard tested Nibali a couple of times and the rode away up the mountain. Nibali couldn't match his acceleration, but kept grinding away through the crowds lining the roads. Except on the switchbacks, however, Nibali could always keep Mosquera and his entourage of motorbikes in sight.
Mosquera had gained 19 or 20 seconds on Nibali at about a half mile to go, but that's where he started to fade. Nibali didn't crack. He kept a steady pace and amazingly caught Mosquera's back wheel again within sight of the finish. Mosquera won the stage and took a 20-second time bonus, but that's all.
Further back, Slovakia's Velits lost some time to Rodriguez and Schleck, but not enough to lose his podium spot in third place.
The final stage of the Vuelta is a flat 62-mile bike race to Madrid. The first part of the ride will be ceremonial, while the sprinters will look for a win on the final circuits in the city. Nibali should win his first ever Grand Tour, coming on the heels of a 3rd place finish in this year's Giro d'Italia behind winning teammate Ivan Basso.
Top 10 overall after Stage 20
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo)
2. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) – :41 behind
3. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) – 3:02
4. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) – 4:20
5. Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) – 4:43
6. Xavier Tondo (Cervélo) – 4:52
7. Nicolas Roche (Ag2R) – 5:03
8. Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) – 6:06
9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) – 6:09
10. Luis-Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne) – 7:33