Chris Froome put in a spirited fight to cling onto third overall at the Vuelta a Espana after a demanding stage 14.
The Brit placed fifth on the punishing Puerto de Ancares summit finish following an impressive show of tenacity from both he and team-mates Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán.
The Colombian duo were integral in helping Froome bridge back across to his main GC rivals after an attack from Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) sparked off a spectacular finale on the first category climb.
Froome put in a burst of his own inside the final two kilometres but had to settle for fifth, 38 seconds back on eventual winner Joaquim Rodriguez.
The Spaniard (Katusha) sent a message to his rivals with a powerful finish, shutting down a second attack from Contador before putting five seconds into him at the line and extending his race lead to 22 seconds.
The toughest stage of the race thus far always looked like ending in a shoot-out on the final climb, and so it proved, Contador having jumped again just as Froome regained contact with the elite group.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) found himself in the mix once again and was third across the line, 13 seconds back, to elevate himself up to level on time with Froome, 1:41 back on the red jersey.
149.2km and five categorised climbs made up the parcours on the first of three incredibly tough days in the mountains, as the intensity at the Vuelta went up a notch.
With a big fight expected to get in the break, it was with relative ease that a large group of 16 riders burst clear after 17km, Movistar and Katusha looking to seize the upper hand as they each put a rider in the move.
That meant Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank were the team tasked with controlling the bunch and kept the escape on a tight leash, the gap never extending out above 2:50 over the undulating terrain.
Alberto Losada (Katusha) out-lasted his counterparts up ahead and continued alone as Saxo Bank continued to push the pace onto the penultimate climb of the Alto Folgueiras de Aigas - Contador visibly marshalling his troops.
One by one the breakaway fell back while the lead group also reduced in size, fifth placed Robert Gesink (Rabobank) the first of the big name to get into difficulties.
After sizing up their opposition it was Rodriguez and Contador who again proved strongest, pushing themselves further ahead of their rivals with significant tests still to come.
Sports Director Marcus Ljungqvist was philosophical after the stage and pointed to the number of climbing kilometres ahead as evidence that the race is not yet over.
“Today was the first of the really tough mountain stages and it was a big battle again among the top contenders," he admitted. "Froomey was just missing that little bit extra on the climb but he hung in there well.
“Saxo Bank controlled the pace during the stage. You can’t say we had an easy ride but we were able to sit tight in the peloton and wait for the final climb.
“Froomey is still up there and in the mix. There is a long way to go and this was the first really tough mountain stage. There is plenty more climbing to do, starting tomorrow, and we will look to support him again.”