Spain's Alberto Contador is poised to claim the fifth Grand Tour victory of his career after the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff rider successfully defended his overall lead in the Tour of Spain on Saturday.
Contador grinned and made a thumbs up sign as he completed the mountainous stage to the Bola del Mundo summit finish in 12th place, behind stage winner Denis Menchov of Russia.
Following a two-year doping ban, double Tour de France winner Contador returned to racing on August 6, finishing fourth in the Dutch Eneco Tour, his one event before the Vuelta started on August 18.
With just one day's racing remaining, a straightforward flat run from Cercedilla to Madrid, Contador leads compatriots Alejandro Valverde, at 1:16, and Joaquim Rodriguez who is third at 1:37.
Cheered by thousands of fans lining the stage's final three km of steep narrow cement track leading to the summit, Rodriguez attacked late on but could not gain enough time to overtake Valverde or Contador.
Asked if he felt he had won the Vuelta, Contador told reporters: "Yes, it's won but it's been very tough.
"Today I didn't have any complicated moments, I knew that Rodriguez would attack, but I just tried to keep going at my own pace.
"It was so close to the finish that I knew it would be impossible for him to get back the time on me.
"Today I enjoyed myself, it's a very special moment, to come back (from the ban) and win is something very important."
"The best rider has won," Rodriguez added.
"I attacked on the final climb to see if I could drop Valverde and overtake him overall."
Former double Vuelta winner Menchov made a last-minute dash for the line to finish ahead of fellow breakaway Richie Porte of Australia by 17 seconds and claim his first Grand Tour stage win in four years.
The two riders attacked from a day-long break of 19 on the Bola del Mundo's lower slopes, with Menchov then dropping Porte almost within sight of the finish.
"I had to be careful, all of us were close to breaking point after such a long race and at the top of such a difficult climb," Menchov, a team mate of Rodriguez in the Katusha squad, told reporters.
"I got in the break because I wanted to see if Joaquim could bridge across to me on the final climb, and we could get the win with him, but it didn't work out so I tried for the stage."
The Vuelta a Espana finishes in Madrid on September 9.