Germany's Tony Martin agonisingly missed out on a day-long lone breakaway victory on stage six of the Vuelta a Espana after being caught just metres from the finish line in Caceres.
The Omega Pharma - Quick-Step rider attacked on the first of the route's 175 kilometres and spent almost the whole day in sole lead of the stage.
He came close to being caught 12km from home, but with the sprint trains failing to keep the pace in the peloton high, the world time trial champion was able to reopen his advantage and took a six-second advantage into the final kilometre.
With 500m to go Martin suddenly looked certain to hold on for an unforgettable victory, but then the chasers launched their sprints and he was finally swallowed up inside the final 10m.
Morkov snatches win
Denmark's Michael Morkov (Saxo-Tinkoff) snatched the victory, with Ariel Richeze (Lampre-Merida) taking second and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard). A devastated Martin crossed the line seventh.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) finished in the peloton to retain his three-second lead over Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) at the top of the general classification.
All of the plaudits belonged to Martin, though, after delivering one of the outstanding performances of the season and a reminder of his near-peerless power.
"It was an unusual time trial of almost four hours," he said afterwards. "At 10km to go they were really close and I thought about giving up. But no, I decided to relaunch the action and then I started thinking when they couldn't close the gap that maybe I can do it after all.
"I couldn't go any faster than I did in the last 200m. Unfortunately, they caught me. As usual when you do something like that, it is always bittersweet. From one end you think you could have won with a bit more luck. On the other hand I felt like a winner."
Stage six took the riders on a largely flat route from Guijuelo to Caceres in western Spain that seemed certain to end in a sprint finish.
That eventuality looked even more of a surety when Martin escaped alone right from the flag and set such a strong early pace that Marco Pinotti's (BMC) attempt to bridge across fell short.
Martin, who is preparing to defend his world time trial title in Florence next month, built up a maximum lead of almost seven and a half minutes, but it seemed more of a training exercise than an attempt to win the stage.
However, after being all but reeled in and then allowed to reopen his led to 15 seconds, the 28-year-old clearly began to believe he could triumph and moved into time trial mode in a bid to stay clear.
With Argos-Shimano's lead-out riders failing to close the gap, Orica-GreenEDGE surged forward and took a chunk out of his lead, but it wasn't until the most thrilling of finales that Martin's fate was sealed.
Stage six result
1 Michael Morkov (Den) Saxo-Tinkoff, 3:54:15
2 Maximiliano Ariel Richeze (Arg) Lampre-Merida, same time
3 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack-Leopard, st
4 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Sharp, st
5 Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Vacansoleil-DCM, st
6 Michael Matthews (Aus) Orica-GreenEDGE, st
7 Tony Martin (Ger) Omega Pharma-Quick Step, st
8 Gianni Meersman (Bel) Omega Pharma-Quick Step, st
9 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC, st
10 Graeme Brown (Aus) Belkin, st
1 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana, 22:38:07
2 Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack-Leopard, +3secs
3 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Saxo-Tinkoff, +8
4 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) RadioShack-Leopard, +16
5 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar, +21
6 Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) RadioShack-Leopard, +26
7 Rigoberto Uran (Col) Team Sky, +28
8 Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha, +31
9 Rafal Majka (Pol) Saxo-Tinkoff, +38
10 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Saxo-Tinkoff, +42
- Green (points classification): Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE)
- Blue polka dot (mountains classification): Nicolas Roche (Ire) Saxo-Tinkoff