(Reuters) - France's Nacer Bouhanni surged to the line to claim the second stage honors at the Tour of Spain on Sunday, holding off a late burst by Germany's John Degenkolb.
With favorites Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador looking to avoid trouble in a challenging finish to the flat 174.4-km ride from Algeciras to San Fernando, FDJ.fr's Bouhanni held off Giant's Degenkolb and Italian Lampre-Merida rider Roberto Ferrari in a sprint.
Spain's Alejandro Valverde took the leader's red jersey.
In the absence of Mark Cavendish, Bouhanni is arguably the strongest sprinter in the race and he showed his superiority in San Fernando.
"We worked very hard for this," Bouhanni told reporters.
"We found ourselves in a great position and this is a great day for me and my whole team. We have to take our chances when we can and each time I have a chance I will take it.
"Maybe I can win a couple of stages and I will aim for the points jersey."
Francisco Aramendia, Jacques Janse van Rensburg, Romain Hardy and 21-year-old Valerio Conti, who replaced last year’s winner Chris Horner in Team Lampre-Merida, broke clear around the hour mark and maintained their lead until the final 20 km.
The sprinters moved to the fore with the IAM Cycling, Lotto Belisol and Giant-Shimano teams at the front of the peloton but Bouhanni went away early and made it over the line first with Degenkolb close behind.
Valverde took the overall lead from compatriot and fellow Movistar rider Jonathan Castroviejo.
Valverde finished fourth in the Tour de France and is in contention to win the Spanish Vuelta but the question is whether he will be sacrificed to support Movistar team mate and second-placed Quintana, who won the Giro d’Italia and arrives in good form.
"I was told I was leader after the race and I am happy but it is only just a coincidence. The aim was to get round and avoid problems which we did do," Valverde told reporters.
"If someone else had won the leader’s jersey then that would have been fine as the aim is for the team to win.
"Nairo is doing well, he won in the (Tour of) Burgos and is a strong rider. In theory he should be better than me in the mountains."
(Editing by Mark Meadows; email@example.com; +44 20 7542 7933; Reuters Messaging:; firstname.lastname@example.org)