Second-overall Ezequiel Mosquera edges race leader Vincenzo Nibali atop the final rated climb of the 2010 Vuelta a España.

Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobea Galicia) edged race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo) atop Bola del Mundo in the decisive 20th stage of the 2010 Vuelta a España on Saturday.

2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: MOSQUERA ATTACKS
Mosquera makes his move.

Second-placed Mosquera attacked on the final kilometers of the final climb, the 21.6km grind to Bola del Mundo, and began taking time on Nibali, who appeared to be struggling early on.

But the red jersey battled back, closing to with a wheel’s length of his rival at the finish and nearly overhauling him for the stage win. Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha) was third at 21 seconds back.

“It was very difficult — I was really suffering on the climb,” said Nibali. “I didn’t panic when Mosquera attacked. I tried to keep him within sight of me because I knew I held an advantage. I am very content to win this Vuelta.”

As for Mosquera, he said: “I gave everything I had on the climb. I never have gone so deep in my life. I want to win everything, but Nibali was too strong today. He deserves to win this Vuelta. I am very glad to win a stage and finish on the podium. It’s more than I could have dreamed of at the start.”

Going up — and up, and up, and up

The mountainous 172.1km race from San Martín de Valdeiglesias to Bola del Mundo featured three rated climbs, starting with the Category 3 Puerto de la Cruz Verde, a 5.1km climb that began at 26.1km and averaged 7.06 percent.

Next was the Category 1 Alto del León at 55.2km , a 7.8km climb that averaged 6.86 percent.

Then came the Category 1 Puerto de Navacerrada at 113.4km, a 7km ascent that averaged 7.5 percent.

And finally, the last rated climb of the Vuelta — the 21.6km grind to Bola del Mundo, which averaged 6.26 percent. The climb grew increasingly difficult as it rose, reaching a maximum grade of 20 percent on the last kilometer.

It was the first time the Vuelta had employed the Bola del Mundo, and general director Javier Guillén was delighted.

“It’s a dream come true to take the Vuelta to Bola del Mundo. For a long time at Unipublic, we’ve wanted to hold a stage finish there but it was difficult from a logistic point of view,” he said.

“This stage is going to be a big success, I think. We expect the race to be at the same level as what we’ve seen since the start in Sevilla. We have a duel. It’s a Spaniard (Ezequiel Mosquera) against a foreigner (Vincenzo Nibali). We have the best ingredients for a great stage.”

The action begins early

A huge break went at 12km, only to be pulled back. Then another formed, and this one stuck.

The men in the break

The break had 2:20 at 28km and twice that at 52km as Katusha sat on the front, monitoring the gap.

When it topped three minutes at 76km, Liguigas and Caisse d’Epargne joined the chase and the gap quickly dipped to under two minutes with 70km remaining.

As the break hit the Category 1 Puerto de Navacerrada Gilbert slid out of it and back to the peloton, which was just a minute behind. Plaza and Tschopp, meanwhile, moved forward, and Plaza took maximum points at the top as Tschopp led the way on the descent.

The duo had about 45 seconds on a chase containing KOM leader David Moncoutie (Cofidis) and 1:20 on the peloton.

With 30km to go they were just 20 seconds ahead of the chase with the bunch at 90 seconds. Four kilometers later they were back with their former break-mates and the chase was on, with Xacobeo Galicia driving the bunch for Mosquera and Liquigas right on their heels for Nibali.

The break crumbles, then collapses

As hares and hounds hit the ascent with 16km to race the break began crumbling. One by one they were swept up with Gusev, Plaza and Kadri the last to concede with 9km to go.

Rémy Di Gregorio (FdJ) then had a go, to no particular effect.

Race leader Nibali had teammate Roman Kreuziger with him. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) was in the group, as were Carlos Sastre and Xavier Tondo (Cervélo TestTeam), Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank), Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha) and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions).

Then Oscal Pujol (Cervélo) attacked, drawing out Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Nobody followed and the two led the way under the banner marking 5km to go. The bunch followed at 10 seconds.

And then Schleck attacked. Mosquera immediately grabbed his wheel, followed by Nibali. Sastre and Danielson were dropped.

Mosquera was next to attack. Nibali matched him, as did Schleck, Velits and Nicholas Roche (Ag2r).

Mosquera rides away

Then Mosquera twisted the throttle and rode away from the Nibali group with 3.5km to go. The race leader didn’t panic, simply riding his own pace and gradually narrowing the gap to his rival.

Mosquera led onto the concrete portion of the climb with Nibali on his wheel. The route was barely six feet wide and lined with screaming fans.

Mosquera rode the wave of cheers to another gap over Nibali, climbing out of the saddle and taking seven seconds over the race leader with 2.5km to go. Nibali was riding mostly in the saddle, his shoulders rocking, totally on the limit.

Schleck led Velits, Rodriquez and Roche a few seconds further behind. Tondo was nowhere to be seen.

With 2km to go Mosquera was still climbing smoothly and apparently without effort. Nibali was fighting for his jersey some 10 seconds back.

Mosquera seemed finally to be suffering in the final 1.5km, which were brutal, the shouting, gesticulating spectators held back only by fluttering course tape. Nibali, too, was struggling, all over his bike and losing time.

One kilometer to go. Mosquera rode into the fog shrouding the finish surrounded by running fans, urging him on. The race leader was just 14 seconds behind.

With 500 meters to go Nibali had closed to within nine seconds. The race leader was giving it everything he had.

And then he could see Mosquera up ahead. He rode straight up to his rival and nearly passed him — but he ran out of road, and the Xacobeo Galicia rider slid across the line and into a handler’s arms for the stage win.

But Nibali was second — and still in red.

“When you win (a grand tour) it’s an honor, especially against a rival like Mosquera who deserved to win,” said Nibali.

“I knew that the last three kilometers would be the hardest, and they were crucial, that I should always be close to Mosquera. I tried to control (the race) as much as possible, and when I saw that I was catching him up I thought everything was possible.”

Mosquera was tearful over his failure to put enough distance between him and Nibali.

“I attacked to win the Tour not the stage, but Nibali was very strong, he showed that he knew how to manage the situation,” he said.

“I pushed myself to the limit thinking that I could win the stage, dreaming of winning the Tour, when I saw that (Nibali) had caught up I thought it was all lost. …

“But I’m proud of being behind a great champion like Vincenzo Nibali.”

The 2010 Vuelta a España concludes Sunday with a mercifully short stage — just 85km from the start in San Sebastián de los Reyes to the finish in Madrid. It’s pan-flat, and there will, of course, be a closing circuit in Madrid, but barring misfortune Nibali will be crowned the champion of this year’s Vuelta.

Race note

Complete results

Quick results
Stage 20

Overall

2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: MOSQUERA ATTACKS
Mosquera makes his move in stage 20. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com (file)
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: BOLA 1
Rodriguez scampers up the steep section.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: KADRI ESCAPE
Kadri leads the big break’s survivors on the last climb.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: MOSQUEIRA SOLO 1
Mosquera hits the steep part.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: MOSQUERA SOLO 2
Mosquera never had enough of a lead to win the Vuelta and Nibali continued to chip away at it all the way to the line.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: SCHLECK ATTACKS
Schleck’s attack broke up what was left of the peloton.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: HONDO ESCAPE
Hondo leads the day’s big – and ultimately doomed – break.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: MOSQUERA WINS
Mosquera wins the stage, but not by what he needed to win the Vuelta
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: NIBAL1 CHASES
Nibali doesn’t have the explosive power of Mosquera, but he steadily fought his way back
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: POZZATO ESCAPE
Pozzato in the break
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: PURITO-VELITS
Rodriguez and Velits battle for that last podium spot
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: SAXO CHASES
Saxo Bank leads the charge in hopes of launching Schleck.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: TEJAY
Van Garderen fights his way up the climb.
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: TXURRUKA CHASES
2010 Vuelta a España, Stage 20: Vande Velde