Chris Froome (Team Sky) narrowly missed out on claiming the first British Grand Tour stage win of the season, losing out in a two-up sprint to Fabio Aru (Astana) on stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana.
On a day in which the Kenyan-born Brit moved up to second overall, gaining 18 seconds on red jersey Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in the process, Aru pipped the Team Sky man to victory by launching a sprint from deep.
It was a touch harsh on Froome, who had done all the work in keeping the duo clear of Valverde, Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) after yet another gutsy display as Team Sky ramped the pace up on the finishing circuit.
But his consolation was to have kept the race for the red jersey very much still open, with second place overall, at the very least, now his to defend on the intriguing three stages still to come.
News of a handful of big-name withdrawals had filtered through earlier in the day, with seventh-placed Robert Gesink (Belkin Pro Cycling) returning home to be with his pregnant wife in hospital.
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) also withdrew as they geared their preparations towards the World Championships, while Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEDGE) had succumbed to illness.
An attack went clear as soon as racing began with Johan Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE), who had harboured overall ambitions at the start of the race, among the riders in the move.
With Lotto-Belisol and Katusha having missed the move, however, they quickly hit the front to keep the riders within touching distance in front – the race eventually coming back together at 21 kilometres.
The attacks and counter-attacks continued, but the peloton refused to ease up with no move being allowed to go clear.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky) were in another big move to go clear, but again the teams not represented rallied to bring it back.
After more than 50 kilometres the peloton was still together, despite Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr) making several attempts to attack.
He was finally allowed to go clear some ten kilometres later, joined by King of the Mountains Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural) and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Sensing no real danger, the peloton slowed and allowed them some breathing space before Alejandro Valverde’s Movistar team-mates hit the front of the bunch and worked to bring them back again.
As the Spanish team managed proceedings on the front, Sanchez and his two companions pressed on – with the Caja Rural keen to climb Monte Castrove first.
As the first passage of the ascent approached, however, the fight for position in the bunch caused the pace to go right up – Team Sky among those hitting the front in numbers.
By the time they reached the climb the gap had fallen to less than a minute, prompting Le Bon to try – unsuccessfully – to go solo at the front.
Further back Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) sensed an opportunity, attacking from the peloton on a small hill prior to the climb.
Tinkoff-Saxo hit the front and brought him back, however, while the attacks continued, despite Sky lining out on the nose.
Siutsou’s pace trimmed the peloton, however, as Sky looked to put the hurt on, while Alberto Losada (Katusha) and Guillaume Levarlet (Cofidis) looked to bridge to the three leaders – Andrey Zeits (Astana) also chasing.
Their efforts came to nothing, however, as the front group was splintered on the climb – Sanchez managing to crest the climb first before opting to sit up and wait for the bunch.
Dupont and Losada pressed on but the Team Sky-led peloton continued to put the hurt on, riding hard on the front and closing the gap down.
The leaders were brought back with 18 kilometres still to ride, while the peloton was down to just 50 riders as Siutsou and Dario Cataldo pulled big shifts on the front.
Contador also had team-mates around him, but Froome took his opportunity to attempt a sprint for bonus seconds – Gorka Izaguirre forcing him to settle for second place as he did a sterling job for team-mate Valverde.
As they hit the bottom of the final climb, the attacks started again – Christophe Le Mevel (Cofidis) the first to earn a gap.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) also made a move, dragging Contador and Cataldo with him, but Mikel Nieve (Team Sky) kept the front group together with a big pull on the front.
It prompted the pace to come down slightly, which in turn presented Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) with the chance to attack, waiting for Damiano Caruso (Cannondale) but to no avail.
Contador went again, with Rodriguez and Valverde on his wheel, but again what remained of the front group came back together.
As more attacks came – Jerome Coppel (Cofidis) another to go clear – Contador and Tinkoff-Saxo worked to bring them back but Froome suddenly appeared in trouble, the pace-setting of Team Sky appearing to have backfired.
As ever, however, Froome showed the sort of gutsy riding which fans have become accustomed to during this year’s race.
With Fabio Aru (Astana) going clear, catching and passing Coppel, Froome joined a chasing group, which was instigated by Rodriguez’s counter-attack.
As Rodriguez, Froome, Contador and Valverde passed Daniel Navarro (Cofidis), who had also launched an attack, Froome shot off the front – catching Aru quickly.
Valverde set the pace further back but with Aru clinging to Froome’s wheel, the two earned a 15-second advantage very quickly.
With Froome continuing to stretch his lead, Contador and Valverde launched attacks further back –Rodriguez again sticking with them.
Displaying more of the enthralling, attacks and counter-attacks fans were starved of at the Tour de France, the Spanish trio continued to chase hard but Froome and Aru remained clear under the flamme rouge.
Froome was doing all the work on the front as they closed in on the finish line, but Aru launched a long sprint.
With Froome unable to respond, Aru snatched victory – preventing a first British Grand Tour stage win of the season in the process.
However, Froome’s work was not all in vain – attention quickly turning to the clock which had ticked over another 12 seconds by the time Alejandro Valverde won the sprint for third ahead of his two compatriots.
Vuelta a Espana 2014: stage 18 – result
1) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana – 3.47.17hrs
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +1”
3) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +13”
4) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha – ST
5) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo
6) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +17”
7) Daniel Navarro (ESP) – Cofidis +33”
8) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha +48”
9) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale – ST
10) Warren Barguil (FRA) – Giant-Shimano
1) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 71.38.37hrs
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +1.19
3) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +1.32
4) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +2.29
5) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +3.15
6) Daniel Martin (IRL) – Garmin-Sharp +6.52
7) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +6.59
8) Warren Barguil (FRA) – Giant-Shimano – ST
9) Daniel Navarro (ESP) – Cofidis +9.44
10) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale – ST