Britain's Chris Froome remains 13 seconds off the overall lead in the Vuelta a Espana after Italy's Francesco Gavezzi won stage 18.
Gavezzi and Belgium's Kristof Vandewalle broke clear at the close of the 174km race from Solares to Noja.
Froome, of Team Sky, finished in the main pack, just behind overall leader Juan Jose Cobo of Spain, with both riders given the same time.
Britain's Bradley Wiggins remains third overall with three stages remaining.
It seems Wiggins, who stays one minute 41 seconds behind Cobo, is all but out of contention following a disappointing ride on Wednesday.
Cobo took the red jersey on the 15th stage and will carry the lead into Friday's 158km route to Bilbao.
The Vuelta a Espana, one of the three major races of the year, finishes on Sunday in Madrid.
After the stage Xabier Zandio, the Team Sky Sports director said: "Although it might have looked it on paper, it was not a straightforward day today at all and there have not been any such days this whole Vuelta.
"Even the pan-flat sprint stage the other day was stressful, and today, even after we'd crested that category-one climb we had to remain alert on the two category three ones that followed.
"If anyone had wanted to have a go on those, the GC [General Classification] teams would have all had to have reacted so it was stressful and everybody was watching everyone else. Lumpy stages always sap your energy as well.
"That said, we are satisfied with the way the stage panned out. Once the break had gone myself and the other guys spent the day protecting Froomey and Bradley and kept them towards the front of the peloton."
1. Francesco Gavazzi (Italy, Lampre) Four hours, 24 minutes and 42 seconds
2. Kristof Vandewalle (Belgium, Quick-Step) 4:24:42
3. Alexandre Geniez (France, Skil - Shimano) +00:00:10
1. Juan Jose Cobo (Spain, Geox) 74:04:05
2. Chris Froome (Britain, Team Sky) +00:00:13
3. Bradley Wiggins (Britain, Team Sky) +00:01:41