Juan José Cobo moved to within touching distance of overall victory at the Vuelta a Espana as Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek) won the penultimate stage.
Geox rider Cobo will take a 13 seconds lead over Team Sky's Chris Froome into Sunday's largely celebratory final stage in Madrid after the pair finished in the main bunch on Saturday.
Opportunities to cut that gap have been few and far between for Froome ever since he won the final mountain-top finish of this year's race back on stage 17.
And it was a similar story on the 185 kilometres route from Bilbao to Vitoria, the capital of the Basque Country, with the day's final climb coming nearly 50km from the finish.
Cobo stuck to his rival's wheel virtually throughout, with the only slight moment of confusion coming when Froome tried to sprint clear with 20km remaining.
He was under the impression he was going for second place in the day's final intermediate sprint - and a potential four seconds bonus - but it was the 20km banner and as soon as he realised he sat up.
Sprinters take control
From that point onwards it was the sprinters' teams who took centre stage as first Carlos Barredo (Rabobank), who had kicked clear from what had initially been an early 26-man break, and then Carlos Sastre (Geox) were reeled in.
Leopard Trek took firm control in the closing stages and their efforts paid off as Bennati took advantage to comfortably outspeed Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Damiano Caruso (Liquigas).
"My team did a fantastic job to get me into position and this is a really good victory for all of them," said Bennati afterwards.
The general classification was almost unchanged, with Cobo still 13 seconds in front of Froome while Bradley Wiggins is 1:39 back having picked up a couple of seconds for his third place in the last intermediate sprint which actually came 16km from home.
One classification to be decided ahead of the final stage is the mountains ranking which has again been won by David Moncoutié (Cofidis).