Swede Frederik Kessiakoff (Astana) was quickest on the crucial Stage 11 time trial of La Vuelta a Espana, but it was the story of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) that stole the show, putting in a fighting ride to keep himself in the leader's red jersey.
I’m really happy to keep the red jersey, but I wouldn’t say I’m the favorite now: Contador, Froome and Valverde did a great performance too, the gaps are narrow, so everything can still happen.
Rodriguez, who has always struggled in the race against the clock, had a one minute buffer over his general classification rivals at the beginning of the day.
That buffer was his saving grace, as he finished the 39.4km time trial one minute and 16 seconds behind the stage winner. More importantly, that buffer allowed him to concede time to his rivals without gaining a race-losing time deficit.
Rodriguez kept the red leader's jersey and now lies one second ahead of compatriot and 2008 Vuelta champ Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Tinkoff Bank), back from a two-year drugs ban, with 16 seconds over Britain's Chris Froome (Sky), runner up at this year's Tour de France.
“Today was a special ITT," said Rodriguez. "I don’t know if it was my best one, since in ‘Giro d’Italia’ I think I did a great job too, but anyways I think I overpassed my limits.
"This is the proof we worked very well in the last year in order to improve in races against the clock.
"Since the morning I was very calm because I knew in my car Valerio Piva and Sebastian Weber would have followed me: especially Sebastian is a great guide for time trials, he knows everything about myself and the parcours, so he knows by heart where I should keep energies and where I can give everything.
"Now I’m really happy to keep the red jersey, but I wouldn’t say I’m the favorite now: Contador, Froome and Valverde did a great performance too, the gaps are narrow, so everything can still happen."
The 32-year-old Kessiakoff of Team Astana stamped his authority on the time trial with an impressive 52min 32sec, beating Saxo Bank's Contador by 17 seconds and Froome of Team Sky by 39 seconds.
“I am absolutely delighted!" said Kessiakoff. "As soon as I crossed the line I knew I had a good time. I saw the gap from Richie Porte, who was second in the classification at the time, and I knew I had done well.
"Contador and Froome were the opponents I was most wary of, but I was sure I would have a good chance to battle it out with them for the win.”
It is the Swede's first stage win in a major tour, though he had fired a warning shot in the 2012 Tour of Switzerland by winning an individual time trial there, too.
Among the favourites, Contador gained the most ground in the time trial, seemingly at ease as he took advantage of a third-category climb of about 10km up Monte Castrove.
The Catalan climber clawed back 22 seconds on Froome, but could not reach Rodriguez.
In Stage 12 the riders face a spectacular 190km coastal route through Galicia from Vilagarcia de Arousa to Mirador de Ezaro, a third category mountain pass with inclinations of over 13 percent.
Stage 11: 39.4km
1 Fredrik Carl Wilhelm Kessiakoff (SWE) Astana Pro Team 0hr 52min 36sec
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (ESP) Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 0:00:17
3 Christopher Froome (GBR) Sky Procycling 0:00:39
4 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (ESP) Movistar Team 0:01:08
5 Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (ESP) Movistar Team 0:01:09
6 Richie Porte (AUS) Sky Procycling 0:01:15
7 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (ESP) Katusha Team 0:01:16
8 Cameron Meyer (AUS) Orica - GreenEDGE 0:01:17
9 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin - Sharp 0:01:24
10 Jonathan Castroviejo Nicolas (ESP) Movistar Team 0:01:34
1 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (ESP) Katusha Team 40hr 26min 15sec
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (ESP) Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 0:00:01
3 Christopher Froome (GBR) Sky Procycling 0:00:16
4 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (ESP) Movistar Team 0:00:59
5 Robert Gesink (NED) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:02:27
6 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (ESP) Katusha Team 0:02:54
7 Nicolas Roche (IRL) AG2R La Mondiale 0:03:39
8 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin - Sharp 0:04:08
9 Laurens Ten Dam (NED) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:04:22
10 Bauke Mollema (NED) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:05:10