Les Praeres, Spain - Remco Evenepoel tightened his grip on the Vuelta a Espana lead on Sunday as stage nine ended on a steep incline where South African Louis Meintjes won from a breakaway.
On a stage billed by the organisers as potentially decisive, 22-year-old Belgian Evenepoel was 52 seconds faster then defending champion Primoz Roglic.
The main challenge of the day was the fifth and final climb, 4km long but at 12.5% average gradient.
On the 171km run from the Cantabrian coast to inland mountaintop of Les Praeres de Nava, Evenepoel increased his overall lead to 1min 12sec over Enric Mas and 1min 53sec over Jumbo-Visma's Roglic.
Ineos pair Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov now sit around five minutes off the lead, while Briton Simon Yates says he is riding into form and is 3min 08sec off the lead.
Inoes 21-year-old Spanish rider Carlos Rodriguez however is still very much in the mix in sixth at just 2min 08sec. He hailed Evenepoel, but is nursing ambitions of his own.
"Being on the podium in a Grand Tour would be a dream come true," said Rodriguez.
"Those four kilometres up to Les Praeres were crazy hard.
“Remco Evenepoel is quite a few steps above the rest. But we all have to continue on, and just do the best we can, even if he is on another level.”
Meintjes was part of a 10-man breakaway that escaped on the first of the day's five climbs. He eventually finished 1min 34sec ahead of the overall leader.
"It worked out perfectly today. I was quite lucky, my team controlled it quite well and I tried once and picked the right breakaway, so that was good teamwork," said the winner.
The Quick-Step rider Evenepoel was set up brilliantly again by his tireless mentor, the world road race champion Julian Alaphilippe, who chased any escape attempts from rivals, before unleashing the prodigy on the final climb.
"I'm really impressed by Julian, and so happy with my team," said Evenepoel.
"It really makes me emotional to see the guys working for me like that."
Evenepoel accelerated with 2.5km of the last climb to go dropping everyone.
"I was super tired, but when my legs started hurting me like that I just thought, everyone is super tired. It's also a question of power when it comes to those percentages and I have worked so much for that, these two past years have transformed me. I'm a new person," Evenepoel said.
Two years ago the former footballer plunged into a ravine when racing in Italy, breaking his pelvis and spending long months in physio.
Evenepoel and the rest of the peloton can enjoy Monday's rest day after a long transfer across Spain to the Mediterranean coast ahead of a 30km individual time-trial where the leader could further turn the screw.