Rigoberto Urán produced one of the most impressive rides of his career to claim fourth on an epic stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia and net fifth place in the process.
The Colombian fought his way into an elite six man group on the mythical Passo Giau climb before battling back after being dropped almost in sight of the summit.
A gutsy ride put the 25-year-old in position to fight for the stage victory but, more importantly, saw him jump up to fifth overall in the standings, taking the white young rider’s jersey in the process.
Team-mate Sergio Henao hung tough on the final climb but, along with a large number of contenders, slipped back before settling into a rhythm, recovering to finish 18th on the day and remain inside the top 10.
In the end it was Joaquim Rodriguez who emerged victorious from an epic day in the Dolomites, the Spaniard (Katusha) taking the stage win to defend the pink jersey on the toughest day of the race so far with the peloton decimated by four categorised climbs.
Rodriguez edged out Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) on the line in Cortina d’Ampezzo after holding on during a fast descent off the final 2,236-metre climb to maintain his 30-second race lead over Hesjedal.
Mark Cavendish finished safely within the time limit ahead of a likely sprint stage on Thursday, the Manxman holding on to the red points jersey by a single point.
Rodriguez, Hesjedal, Basso and Urán were joined by Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and stage eight winner Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF), the diminutive climber turning the screw over the top of the final climb to put both Urán and Scarponi in jeopardy.
Behind the peloton were strewn out after a 186-kilometre test which went a long way to forging the leaderboard of the season’s first Grand Tour.
In stark contrast to Tuesday’s stage which saw the peloton ease off to afford themselves a relatively easy day, the day’s escapees were given a maximum advantage of little over six minutes after breaking clear after 43km.
Team Sky came to the fore with Bernhard Eisel taping out a pace on the opening second category Passo Valparola with the maglia rossa of Cavendish in his wheel before Euskaltel-Euskadi, somewhat surprisingly, took up the workload on the long descent.
The pace continued onto the first category Passo Duran with the Basque squad taking chunks out of the advantage held by the break before Liquigas-Cannondale returned to the front.
Still with 62km to go Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi), 18th overnight, attacked out of the bunch and quickly began to eat into the advantage of the break, eventually making the bridge at the foot of the Forcella Staulanza.
With Liquigas still applying pressure the time gaps closed up, caught with 42km remaining and shortly after the first big-name casualty of the day as Roman Kreuziger (Astana) slipped out of the back door.
More favourites would drop back on the Giau, with Basso’s key Liquigas lieutenant Sylvester Szmyd forced to stop with a mechanical problem, forcing an exposed Basso to set the pace.
With contenders such as Team Sky’s Sergio Henao dropping back eventually six riders remained, the elite faction looking at one another on the steep ramps as they elevated themselves into an increased position of GC strength.
Uran and Scarponi both produced gutsy displays to regain touch on the final descent, the latter battling back from cramp to keep his race hopes alive. With four tests remaining Basso sits third (+1:22) with Scarponi (+1:36) and Urán (+2:56) rounding out the top five.
The stage saw Peter Kennaugh abandon the race following an impressive performance coming off the track, bringing to an end a tough block of racing which should serve him well heading into the summer.
After the stage Sports Director Nicolas Portal reflected on the brave efforts of the team Colombian climbers.
He said: “Everyone is delighted with the performance Rigo and Sergio were able to produce today. They both dug really deep on those climbs and can be very proud of themselves. The rest of the team gave them some good support and then they clung on as favourites like Kreuziger and Tiralongo were dropped behind them.
“Unfortunately Sergio couldn't quite hang on up the Passo Giau but kept on going and his efforts meant he is in the top-10 on GC, and second in the white jersey standings. Given that this is his first season in Europe, he's been a revelation so far and we hope he can carry that through to the end now.
“Rigo was fantastic and kept pace with some of the best climbers in the business. We showed a great attitude to battle his way back on that last descent and is back in the white jersey.”
Portal also paid tribute to the effort of Cavendish on the day and provided the reasons the abandonment of Kennaugh.
“Cav was feeling good when he came back to the bus and is definitely looking forward to tomorrow,” he added.
“As for Pete, he has been suffering from fatigue recently and was feeling pain in his left leg today so we took the decision to pull him from the race on the very first climb today. It’s a shame because he’s done a brilliant job all race but we couldn't risk making the problem any worse.”