Barlo battles back to build up lead

A gruelling 24 hours saw the overall leader of the Tour de France à la Voile, Britain's Barlo Plastics, stretch its advantage into an almost unassailable position yesterday.

A gruelling 24 hours saw the overall leader of the Tour de France à la Voile, Britain's Barlo Plastics, stretch its advantage into an almost unassailable position yesterday.

They notched up another third place on the leg from Bandol, near Marseilles, to Port Grimaud, which was delayed until mid-afternoon on Tuesday and then shortened to 35 miles. Though a dying breeze meant very tricky conditions, Tony Buckingham's Easy Oars, at 2.30 in the morning, scored their third offshore win of the season and Belvedere, the winners of the previous offshore test from St Cyprien to Sÿte,with Bernard Mallaret as tactician, were second.

That pushed Barlo's lead over its nearest rival, Marseille 2000, to over 50 points, with Easy Oars further consolidating its fourth overall and cutting the margin held by Jimmy Pahun's Region Ile de France in third place to 14 points. "That was an important day's work," said Adrian Stead, the skipper of Barlo, who can now almost taste the champagne he expects to drink from the cup when the Tour finishes in Calvi, Corsica, on Saturday.

Yesterday's inshore leg at Port Grimaud was another lottery in light airs. Barlo was squeezed out of the start and had to go round the mark again, and was then squeezed out of the first turning mark, fouling a competitor and having to take a 360-degree penalty turn.

But they were able to come back on the run, sailing round a huge group of boats as they bunched together, and were up to fifth. Their finish place of fourth pushed their overall lead to over 60 points, as Marseille 2000 was 10 places behind. Despite an unhappy 19th, Easy Oars closed down on Ile de France, who, with Eddie Warden Owen calling the tactics, were 32nd in the 34-boat fleet of Mumm 30s.

Last night's leg to Imperia, Italy, had threatened more pressure on tired crews, but fickle Mediterranean breezes - between three knots and 18 yesterday with 40-degree shifts in direction - resulted in the race being rescheduled. The organisers confirmed they will motor the fleet the 72 miles and run two inshore legs today.

TOUR DE FRANCE A LA VOILE Standings at Port Grimaud (after discard and with three races to go): 1 Barlo Plastics (GB) A Stead 1319.25pts; 2 Marseille 2000 (Fr) A Fédensieu 1257.5; 3 Region Ile de France (Fr) J Pahun 1228.5; 4 Easy Oars (GB) T Buckingham 1212.5; 5= Ville de Genÿve (Swit) Etienne David and St James (Fr) Pierre Alexis-Ponsot 1128.25.

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