(Reuters) - Chris Froome virtually secured his first Vuelta a Espana victory by coming third in the decisive stage 20 on Saturday as Alberto Contador took the stage victory with a typically brave attack on the Alto de L’Angliru, a dream finale to his eventful career.
The Spaniard, who is retiring from cycling after La Vuelta, burst free of the breakaway group at the start of the final climb in the short, yet punishing, 117.5km stage, the last mountaintop finish of the contest.
But as long as Froome avoids disaster in the last of the 21 stages on Sunday -- a procession through Madrid -- the Briton will become the third cyclist to win the Tour de France and Vuelta in the same season, following Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978).
Froome leads nearest challenger Vincenzo Nibali by two minutes and 15 seconds in the general classification, increasing his advantage over the Italian by 38 seconds with a strong finish in the penultimate stage while the Italian struggled.
Russia’s Ilnur Zakarin is third, two minutes, 51 seconds behind four-times Tour de France winner Froome.
“It’s an absolute incredible feeling, and what a way to end such a massive three weeks of racing, having completed the Tour-Vuelta double that’s an amazing feeling, thanks to everyone for all of the support for the last few weeks,” Froome told reporters.
“It was such a tough climb, we did everything we could to try and catch Alberto and my congratulations to him, to finish his career like this is beautiful.”
Froome was well-versed in the infamous Alto de l’Angliru and its 12.5km ascent, coming second in a stage there in 2011, the year he shot to cycling fame by coming second overall in La Vuelta ahead of team leader Bradley Wiggins.
Nibali’s faint chances of catching Froome overall went up in smoke when he crashed with 15km to go on a descent before reaching the Angliru ascent, losing 20 seconds on the Briton, while Marc Soler and David de la Cruz also had falls as they struggled to negotiate the slippery surface in the rain.
Contador was part of the breakaway and extended his lead by attacking at the start of the Angliru, joining Colombian Jarlinson Pantano before dropping him and marching beyond Tomasz Marczynski to finish the grueling climb on his own, dancing on the pedals.
The Spaniard moved up to fourth in the general classification and is set to miss out on a podium place in his final professional race, but his magnificent stage win ensured he still signed off from his glorious career in style.
“I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful ending, winning in the Angliru, it’s a great end to a career in which I gave everything,” said Contador, the only Spaniard to have won a stage at this year’s Vuelta.
“Today was my day, I couldn’t have asked for a better moment or place. I attacked in every stage and I’ve only missed out on a podium place by a little. I want to thank everyone, this Vuelta has been a gift for me.”
Reporting by Richard Martin,; Editing by Neville Dalton and Pritha Sarkar