Alberto Contador kept the overall leader's red jersey to all but clinch his second Spanish Vuelta title after Saturday's punishing 20th stage won by Denis Menchov.
Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez, Contador's closest pursuers in the general classification, finished ahead of their fellow Spaniard but not with enough advantage to close the gap to the 2008 champion.
Contador crossed the finish 4 minutes, 15 seconds after Menchov to take his leading overall time to 82:14:52, which was 1:16 quicker than Valverde and 1:37 ahead of Rodriguez before Sunday's last stage, a largely processional 115-kilometer (71-mile) ride into Madrid.
Contador is on the verge of a fifth victory in cycling's major events to go with a pair of Tour de France triumphs and the 2008 Giro d'Italia, which he won before his first Vuelta victory later that same year.
"Yes, now the Vuelta is practically won," the Madrid native said. "It has been very difficult and we've had to hold our head high and our legs strong."
On the bending climb to the weather station atop the Bola del Mundo, Contador was just in front of Valverde and Rodriguez as the peloton eased from smooth pavement on to an uneven surface as throngs of fans choked the road.
Rodriguez made a dash with less than 2 kilometers left as the riders dug in and the peloton slowed to a crawl at times while navigating the 23 percent angled climb to the 2,247-meter (7,372-feet) finish.
With Rodriguez ahead of Contador, Valverde also found reserves to pull ahead and finish behind Rodriguez but the difference was minimal and the pair failed to make a significant dent in Contador's advantage. Valverde managed to gain just 19 seconds while Rodriguez chipped off 48 seconds as Contador stuck to his own pace to the finish.
"Again the team was great on the Bola del Mundo," Contador said. "I knew Joaquin was going to attack but there wasn't enough terrain left for him to make up time. It's a special win."
Two-time Vuelta winner Menchov outlasted Richie Porte of Australia to win the penultimate leg by 17 seconds in 4:48:48. It was the Russian's fourth career stage win at the Spanish classic.
Kevin de Weert of Belgium was 42 seconds behind Menchov in third ahead of Sweden's Fredrik Kessiakoff and Romain Sicard of France, who was 1:39 behind.
- Katusha Team rider Denis Menchov of Russia celebrates after winning the 20th stage of the Tour of Spain "La Vuelta". Photo: REUTERS
- Menchov celebrate with the traditional bottle of "cava" Photo: REUTERS
- Team Saxo Bank rider and race leader Alberto Contador of Spain celebrates after the 20th stage of the Tour of Spain "La Vuelta". Photo: REUTERS
- Katusha Team rider Denis Menchov of Russia crosses the finish line to win the 20th stage. Photo: REUTERS
- Team Saxo Bank rider and race leader Alberto Contador of Spain cycles during the 20th stage. Photo: REUTERS
- Alberto Contador is looking for his first major victory since his doping ban. Photo: REUTERS
- Contador celebrates after retaining the lead in the 20th stage of the tournament. Photo: REUTERS
- Team Saxo Bank rider leader of the race Alberto Contador of Spain celebrates after the 20th stage of the Tour of Spain "La Vuelta" cycling race between La Faisanera Golf and Bola del Mundo September 8, 2012. REUTERS/Miguel Vidal (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT CYCLING) Photo: REUTERS