Rigoberto Urán battled hard to maintain his fifth place overall at the Giro d'Italia as stage 19 again came down to a battle between the overall contenders.
The Colombian continued what has been a sensational ride to this point with seventh on the stage, keeping his major rivals in sight to not only firm up his GC standing but spend another day in the white young rider's jersey.
Urán and team-mate Sergio Henao again rode an accomplished race to sit firmly in the mix as an elite group formed on the final climb. Despite being distanced due to an acceleration ahead Henao also moved up the overall on the day, moving up a place into ninth overall.
Team Sky again retain two classification jerseys heading into the penultimate stage with Mark Cavendish finishing the day in the second gruppetto, now holding a 13-point advantage in the standings to race-leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Juan Antonio Flecha soaked up maximum points at the day's intermediate sprint after a gutsy day in the breakaway.
On the day it was Roman Kreuziger (Astana) who battled hard to claim victory on a brutally tough stage, attacking on the penultimate Passo Lavaze climb before digging in to hold off his rivals on the steep ramps of the Alpe di Pampeago.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) crossed the line second to further his claims to overall victory, putting 13 seconds into Rodriguez who, third across the line, held on to the maglia rosa by just 17 seconds.
Despite a number of contenders knowing they had to distance Hesjedal ahead of the final stage time trial, it was the Canadian himself who went on the attack in the closing kilometres, forging clear alongside rival Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) on the toughest climbing test of the race thus far.
Just behind were Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Urán, Basso's squad again setting the pace for most of the day before the Italian was left to go it alone on the final climb.
Despite all featuring in the same picture in the final 200 metres the time gaps among the GC contenders saw Scarponi (+1:39) leapfrog Basso (+1:45) into third, while Urán (+3:21) bravely maintained his place in the top five.
It was no surprise to see riders strewn out across the 198-kilometre parcours, the first of two epic mountain tests which saw 17 riders go clear in the early going with most of the major teams represented.
The group built up a healthy advantage of 10 minutes over the third category Castelnuovo as the peloton set into a rhythm behind.
Best-placed man in the group at 12:25 down Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) kicked on from his fellow escapees late on, dragging with him Stefano Pirazzi (Colnago-CSF) in a move which lasted until deep onto the final climb.
The favourites were content to keep their powder dry first time over the brutal Alpe di Pampeago, each clinging on as the peloton slowly decreased in size, sixth placed Benat Intxausti (Movistar) the most high-profile casualty on the day after slipping back early on.
Sensing his chance to strike Kreuziger headed up the road on the penultimate climb along with Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), while one by one the original group of escapees, including Flecha, were dragged back.
The race now moves on to a similarly brutal stage on Saturday which culminates in the highest ever Grand Tour mountain-top finish on the Passo dello Stelvio.
After the stage Sports Director Nicolas Portal put the day into perspective, saying: “Today was a very good day for the team. All the guys rode brilliantly. Rigoberto and Sergio were very strong again on the final climb. Rigoberto has maintained fifth and Sergio has moved up a place now on the GC to ninth. We have to be satisfied with that with both jerseys still within the team.
“We had Flecha up the road in the break while Cav and Bernie had the situation under control in the gruppetto and rode to the finish.
“Tomorrow is going to be tough again and we will look to put Rigoberto and Sergio in a solid position ahead of the Passo dello Stelvio and see what happens from there.”