Alejandro Valverde regained the overall lead of the Vuelta a Espana after winning a thrilling battle between the race favourites on stage six as Chris Froome and Alberto Contador emphatically dispelled doubts over their fitness by finishing second and third.
Valverde, Froome, Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana all went toe to toe on the climb to the summit finish on Alto Cumbres Verdes, but it was Valverde who proved the strongest after distancing his rivals with a decisive sprint for the line 150m out.
Froome and Contador followed just behind on the same time, but both Rodriguez and Quintana cracked in the last 250m and had to settle for fourth and fifth, eight and 12 seconds back respectively.
The result sees Valverde pull on the red jersey for the second time in this year's race and open up a 15-second lead at the top of the general classification over Quintana, with Contador now 18 seconds back in third and Froome 22 seconds adrift in fourth.
It could also signal a shift in power within the Movistar team, after Valverde shepherded team-mate Quintana all the way up the 4.6km final climb and still had enough strength left to ride away from the wilting Colombian at the death.
'Victory means a lot'
Froome and Contador, meanwhile, cast aside any fears that they might not be competitive at the Vuelta following their crashes at the Tour de France by matching Valverde almost stride for stride and leaving both Rodriguez and Quintana – who were expected to be fresher – trailing.
Valverde said: "This victory means a lot to me. My legs were really good today. It was a climb that really suited me and we couldn't miss such an opportunity had we got it. Still, I think everyone saw clearly I was working for Nairo.
"We also took some bonus seconds and the result is fantastic for the whole team. For me, the main leader of the squad is still Nairo, though I don't rule out my own chances."
The 167.1km stage was once again played out in sweltering conditions and with the day’s two-man breakaway having been all but caught by the foot of the final climb, attention turned to the general classification contenders.
After Orica-GreenEdge had led the peloton on to the climb, Movistar soon took over, with Valverde hitting the front and setting a torturous pace that reduced the pack down to just nine riders heading into the final 1km.
Rodriguez ignites battle
Rodriguez (Katusha) was the first to show his cards with an attack 650m out and although he instantly opened up a gap, Valverde soon bridged across to him and it looked like it would be a battle between those two for the win.
Froome (Team Sky), however, remained patient and brilliantly reeled the pair back in 300m from the line with a defiant piece of riding, albeit dragging both Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Quintana back into contention with him to set up a five-man shootout for victory.
Quintana and Rodriguez could not maintain the pace and quickly fell away, but Froome continued in mountain time trial mode and briefly moved into the lead, only for Valverde to conjure one last burst of energy to snatch a compelling and deserved win.
The Spaniard picked up ten bonus seconds for his victory, with Froome collecting six seconds and Contador four.
Stage six result
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar, 4:35:27
2 Chris Froome (GB) Team Sky, same time
3 Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo, st
4 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha, +8
5 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, +12
6 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, +18
7 Johan Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-GreenEdge, +25
8 Daniel Navarro (Spa) Cofidis, st
9 Mikel Nieve (Spa) Team Sky, +32
10 Robert Gesink (Ned) Belkin, +33
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar, 22:48:08
2 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, +15
3 Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo, +18
4 Chris Froome (GB) Team Sky, +22
5 Johan Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-GreenEdge, +41
6 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha, +45
7 Robert Gesink (Ned) Belkin, +55
8 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, +58
9 Warren Barguil (Fra) Giant-Shimano, +1:02
10 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Belkin, +1:06