The Italian triumphed ahead of John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) on the short stage from Valencia to Castellòn, punctuated by a second-category climb 16 kilometres from the line.
"It is a dream come true for me because it's been four times in this Vuelta that I've tried to do my sprint and today when I crossed the finish line, I still cannot believe it," Sbaragli said. "It is a dream for me and a dream for MTN-Qhubeka."
Tom Dumoulin finished safely in the bunch to retain his red jersey, having worked on the descent of the Alto del Desierto de las Palmas to help tee things up for Degenkolb. With Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) abandoning the race early on in the stage through fatigue and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) already out, all eyes were on Degenkolb on the flat 7km run-in to the finishing straight.
Degenkolb found himself several places back as the sprint was opened up and despite gaining significant ground he was unable to overhaul Sbaragli, who clinched the second victory of his career after a stage of the Tour de Korea in 2013. It is MTN-Qhubeka’s first taste of success at the Vuelta and it continues the African team’s irresistible upward curve, following on from Steve Cummings’ breakthrough success at the Tour de France in July.
How it unfolded
It was a fast and furious start to the 146.6km ride up the eastern coast of Spain. Lots of riders showed interest in trying to get away but it wasn’t until 25 kilometres in, on the first climb of the day – the third-category Puerto del Oronet – that a group managed to go clear.
And it was arguably more of a split in the peloton than a breakaway group, containing as it did some 40 riders.
They were: Dario Cataldo, Matteo Montaguti, Sergio Henao, Carlos Verona, Riccardo Zoidl, Tiago Machado, Daniel Navarro, Peter Velits, Lawson Craddock, Rubén Plaza, Martijn Keizer, Luis León Sánchez, Larry Warbasse, Imanol Erviti, David Arroyo, Natnael Berhane, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Romain Hardy, Tsgabu Grmay, Andrey Amador, Pello Bilbao, Eduard Vorganov, Carlos Quintero, Maxime Monfort, Ian Boswell, Salvatore Puccio, Benjamin King, Kenny Elissonde, Stephen Cummings, Cameron Meyer, Amael Moinard, George Bennett, Darwin Atapuma, Ángel Madrazo, Mickael Cherel, Davide Villella, Rodolfo Torres, Johannes Frohlinger, Jérôme Cousin, and Jay McCarthy.
Despite the size of the group and the fact that all teams were represented in it, they were never able to establish a significant lead. The gap to the bunch dangled just above the minute mark for many of the undulating kilometres but things only grew more uncoordinated and fractured, with some riders dropping back and others attacking.
With the pace still high in the peloton, it came back together with 55 kilometres to go and, barring a short-lived move instigated by Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep), it remained that way until the Puerto del Desierto de las Palmas, positioned tantalisingly ahead of the finish.
Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) was the first to have a pop, and he was followed by Romain Sicard (Europcar). Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) then formed a two-man chase group with Jerome Coppel (IAM) before catching the leaders and going clear himself.
In the bunch behind, the GC men started to look at each other towards the top of the climb and Dumoulin hit the front, ever watchful of potential threats to his red jersey.
As the climb crested De Marchi and Sicard caught Elissonde, and the trio headed downhill with an advantage of about 30 seconds over the peloton. Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep) hovered just ahead of the Dumoulin-led bunch on a descent that was not so severe as to stop riders from having to pedal pretty furiously the whole way down.
Once the road flattened out with about 7km to go the leaders stood little chance of staying away and with a few kilometres to go it became a case of getting organised for a sprint finish between those who had made it over the climb. Degenkolb was one of those men but was isolated and it was a scrappy affair in the final kilometre, with no lead-out trains in sight. Tosh van der Sande (Lotto-Soudal) was the first to really go but Sbaragli came surging past.
Degenkolb was gaining all the time and probably did the fastest sprint but he had started from too far back and had left it too late to deny the Italian a huge victory – both for himself personally and for his team.
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