Chris Froome once again showed immense determination to hang on to fourth place overall at the Vuelta a Espana following the queen stage.
The stage proved a tough one for Froome who battled fatigue to maintain his strong GC placing, taking 14th spot on a brutal 16th stage at the summit of the Cuitu Negru climb.
Froome was helped once again by the work of team-mate Sergio Henao on the climb, the torturous slope was making its first appearance in the race and provided a huge spectacle with riders almost coming to a standstill on ramps of 24% towards the finish.
The result saw the Tour de France runner up slide back to 4:42 off the pace, with the top three above him unchanged.
Up ahead Dario Cataldo put in an impressive ride from the day’s breakaway to claim victory, the Italian (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) edging clear of fellow escapee Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) late on to take the win by six seconds.
The overall contenders crossed the line 2:38 behind Cataldo - Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) holding firm to further tighten his grip on the red jersey going into the second rest day.
The Spaniard was able to cancel out the constant threat of compatriot Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) who, for the third stage running, looked to attack the race leader on numerous occasions.
Rodriguez was able to follow in his footsteps before chipping clear to take two seconds at the finish, extending his lead out to 28 seconds. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was the only man able to keep pace heading into the finish, and solidified third spot, 2:04 back.
Sting in the tail
After the stage we caught up with Froome who admitted he felt every metre of what was one of the toughest climbs of the season.
“That was such a hard climb," he explained. "I’m struggling to think about what I can compare it to. There are not many stages that you do which finish up a climb that is 20km long and the last 4km is an average of almost 20%. I don’t think the screen or TV can do that justice. It really is a gruelling climb.
“There was a stage with about 150 metres to go where I looked at the ramp ahead of me and thought ‘I might have to walk up there’!
“It’s tough to look at other guys and think about trying to stay on the wheel. I just tried to ride my own speed up there and survive as best I could.
“We have a rest day coming up tomorrow and we’re ready for the last week. The hardest part of the race is probably behind us now I think and it’s just day by day now Madrid. I'm giving it everything and we'll see where that puts me after three weeks.”
In a repeat of Sunday’s stage, it was the same group of contenders who emerged when the attacks began - Rodriguez and Contador in attendance while Valverde was joined by team-mate Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
The third of three brutal mountain tests, the 183.5km route had headed out from Gijon ahead of the queen stage of the race.
After a number of moves were vetoed by the peloton, De Gendt and Cataldo finally went away after 50km. The gap to the duo ballooning out in excess of 15 minutes before beginning to fall away on the penultimate climb of the Alto de la Cobertoria.
Back in the bunch, Euskaltel Euskadi were willing to lend a hand to Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank with the pace-setting duties as the gap began to fall - the lead pairing holding little over 8:00 at the start of the final climb.
Fifth-placed Daniel Moreno (Katusha) was the first to become distanced and had to be paced back up to the lead group, but before long the reduced peloton was beginning to fracture further, with every man forced to fight for himself as the final climb kicked up.
Sports Director Nicolas Portal was pleased to see Froome dig deep on the climb, adding: "It was an incredibly steep climb, especially the last 3km which was super steep at around 17%.
"Chris was hanging on behind but it was about limiting his losses and setting a tempo. He gave it everything and did a really consistent ride. Sergio also did a really good job to help Froomey on the climb. It was tough for Richie to puncture just before the climb. That’s the worst possible moment.
"Everyone on the team is looking forward to the rest day now and we are getting closer to Madrid."