Carlos Sastre moved to within touching distance of the Tour de France title after retaining the yellow jersey on the penultimate stage following Saturday’s time trial between Cerilly and St Amand-Montrond.
Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher powered to victory – his second time-trial triumph of the Tour following his success in the fourth stage – in the 53km race against the clock by posting a time of one hour, three minutes and 50 seconds.
But Team CSC’s Sastre was the day’s real winner, the Spaniard holding onto his overall lead despite finishing the time trial 2mins and 36secs behind Schumacher.
Cadel Evans, Sastre’s chief rival, climbed into second place overall by posting 1.05:55 to come in a disappointing seventh but failed to do enough to oust the leader. He lies 65 seconds behind Sastre.
Australia’s Evans managed to leapfrog Bernard Kohl but the surprise package from Austria remains third, with Frank Schleck – who began the day second - dropping down to sixth in the classification on Saturday.
With just the traditional ride into Paris left in the final stage on Sunday, Sastre is now virtually assured the title.
And Evans and Kohl appear to be guaranteed podium finishes barring any major incidents in the 21st and final stage into and through the capital.
Two-time reigning world time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara finished the stage second, 21 seconds back, while Luxembourg’s Kim Kirchen was third a further 40 seconds back.
Sastre, who is set to become the third successive Spanish winner of the Tour following victories for Oscar Pereiro in 2006 and Alberto Contador in 2007, could not hide his delight after his gutsy time trial.
And he was in no doubt he had secured the title, even though there is one stage left to negotiate.
“It is the dream moment of my life,” said the 33-year-old, who has held the yellow jersey since prevailing in Wednesday’s stage on Alpe-d’Huez.
“A dream has become a reality. I was calm and composed. I knew it was the moment of my life and that it was necessary that I fought as hard as possible.
“I will make the most of this.”
He also thanked his Team CSC colleagues, adding on television station France 2: “It has been the work of the whole team.
“The Schleck brothers have sacrificed themselves for me and sacrificed their own aims. They have given 100% for me.”
Bjarne Riis, manager of Team CSC, indicated a new deal would be in the offing for Sastre, whose contract is set to expire.
“I hope so – we will do everything for that to happen,” said the Dane, the winner of the Tour in 1996.
“It is a great feeling. We have been strong in the mountains and we have shown some great tactics.
“Carlos has been strong the whole three weeks. He showed he was strong by attacking in the Alps.”
Cancellara, of Team CSC, had set a blistering pace midway through the afternoon by crossing in 1.04:11.
That time, which obliterated the 1.05:27 posted by Great Britain’s David Millar moments earlier, stood firm for a while, even though the weather gradually improved throughout the afternoon.
Rain had fallen overnight and in the morning in the Allier and Cher departments through which the time trial passed, but the roads had dried out by mid-afternoon – by which time the main contenders of the 145 remaining riders were just setting out.
Schumacher managed to oust Cancellera at the summit by coming in 21 seconds quicker to take the lead, but the big guns were still to finish. However, his time proved to be untouchable.
Evans was expected to come through strong, with the yellow jersey tantalisingly there for the taking, but he failed to produce his best.
The Australian, who is now set to finish second in the Tour two years in succession, started sluggishly and was only sixth after the first time check, after 18km.
After the second time check, he had dropped into seventh place, 1:30 behind Schumacher, and there he stayed, cutting a tired and frustrated figure as he crossed the line.
He could only trim 31 seconds off Sastre’s lead but did at least catapult over Gerolsteiner’s Kohl and Schleck into second place.
Christian Vandevelde finished fourth in a time of 1.04:55 while Millar was fifth, 32 seconds further back.