Former Giro and Vuelta winner Denis Menchov (Katusha) took top honours on the legendary Bola del Mundo climb on Stage 20 of the Vuelta a Espana, after attacking break companion Richie Porte in the last 500 metres of a monstrously difficult finale.
Maybe I've won the race through bravery, refusing to conform and because of the way I approach racing.
The Russian had ridden in a large early break of 20 riders which formed after 18 kilometres of racing and was never caught.
The victory ended Katusha's Vuelta on a high after the disappointment of losing Joaquim Rodriguez's race lead on Stage 17. A single bad day was all that it took for the Spaniard to concede time to Alberto Contador and lose the chance of winning the overall.
Some 17 seconds back an exhausted Richie Porte rolled over the line. The Team Sky talent was unable to end his team's barren run at the Tour of Spain, but he did come mighty close. He was one of the key animators on the early slopes of the Bola del Mundo along with Menchov, and instigated the main split in the break.
Though his strength was unrewarded as cramp, and a superior Menchov got the better of the Australian, he does look in good nick for a good ride at the UCI Road World Championships and will be encouraged by his ride on one of the hardest climbing stages of La Vuelta.
Porte's ride wasn't the only highlight for Australian riders, with Stage 4 winner Simon Clarke doing enough over the day's first four categorised climbs to seal just the antipodean nation's second climber's title at a Grand Tour.
He joins Lampre-ISD's Matt Lloyd who won the Giro's mountain's classification in 2010, and completes a stellar Vuelta for his Orica-GreenEDGE.
Down the mountain Joaquim Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde engaged in a final melee before tomorrow's race finish in Madrid.
Rodriguez's hopes of taking back red seemed doomed when a still healthy-sized peloton arrived intact at the lower slopes of Bola del Mundo. With little distance to take advantage of the best 'Purito' could hope for a move from third to second on GC.
Resigned to his chances, and with the stage win up the road and decided with Menchov, Rodriguez didn't launch a move until he was inside the final two kilometres.
By then his time potential gains were even more limited, but spurred on by the huge crowd that lined the slopes of Bola del Mundo, he did fire, reminding many of the man that many will think of as the strongest rider of this year's race and putting on one final show for fans and critics alike.
He out-shone both Contador and Valverde on the climb, with the steep slopes suiting the Spaniard's punchier style.
He isolated Contador who was cracking big time on the slopes of Bola del Mundo, but had a handy buffer to play with, while Valverde also had a little bit of leeway tried not to go too deep and rode the last kilometres at his own pace.
Rodriguez crossed the finish in ninth place on the day, and 25 seconds clear of Valverde. A point of pride more than anything for Rodriguez, while the most ragged looking Contador seen at this year's Vuelta finished more than 40 seconds back.
Contador did have time to wave a thumbs up as he crossed the line, acknowledging a mission accomplished.
The man who had only ridden one stage race before La Vuelta showing over the last three weeks why he is considered one of the best Grand Tour riders in history. His Stage 17 win was the stuff of legend, and he'll go down as a deserved champion.
“Maybe I've won the race through bravery, refusing to conform and because of the way I approach racing, too," said Contador. "Many times people have said Contador was the big favorite but I knew how hard it would be.
"I've won this Vuelta after a long time away from racing and there were moments when I thought it was difficult. But as I said on the second rest day, I believed I could do it. If I hadn't believed in my chances, then I'd have just stuck with my second place. And I wouldn't have attacked at Fuente Dé.
"When Joaquim attacked on the Bola del Mundo I knew the differences would be minimal because I've studied the results from 2010. I really enjoyed this stage, so many people were out there supporting me and the other riders, and I will always remember it.
"I still can't believe I've won it, to tell the truth. I think it's been a very beautiful, well-fought Vuelta and one which is a success for cycling in general.”
Contador wins the 2012 Vuelta, Alejandro Valverde second, and Joaquim Rodriguez takes third.
Join us for the final stage of La Vuelta a Espana, tomorrow on SBS ONE and online.
Stage 20: 170.7km, Bola del Mundo
1 Denis Menchov (RUS) Katusha Team 4hr 48min 48sec
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 (ESP) Katusha Team 0:03:31
10 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (ESP) Movistar Team 0:03:56
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (ESP) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank 82hr 14min 52sec
2 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (ESP) Movistar Team 0:01:16
3 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (ESP) Katusha Team 0:01:37
4 Christopher Froome (GBR) Sky Procycling 0:10:16
5 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (ESP) 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 (ESP) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:14:01
10 Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (ESP) Movistar Team 0:16:13