The news that Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are to skip the Tour de France in order to focus fully on the Olympic Games has sparked a debate that rages every four years – what’s worth more, a Tour stage win or an Olympic gold medal?
While it’s true that in European cycling the Olympic Games does not hold the same prestige as it does for other sportsmen and women, for a British athlete it can make a reputation for life.

Beijing 2008 will be the fourth Games open to the professional riders and the lure of winning gold is growing ever stronger for the European peloton, particularly on the road.

For some reason, a fair contingent of fans don’t deem track cycling to be as worthy – and there are many who will swear all day long that a stage of the Tour de France is worth an armful of medals from the Olympics.

But they are wrong. In Britain, the Olympics is the pinnacle and success at the Games can lead a path to glory, fame and riches that two dozen Tour stages, a Classic and even a world title simply would not bring. Perhaps only overall victory on the Champs-Elysees at the Tour de France would rival the Olympics in the minds of the mainstream media and the man and woman in the street.

Wiggins stated very early on that he would ride the Giro d’Italia instead of the Tour in 2008. The fact the Tour de France is not starting with a prologue makes it a no-brainer for him.

However, Cavendish had been tipped to return to the Tour and grab the stage win that fate and some unfortunate circumstances denied him in July. But that was a heck of an assumption. Cavendish’s place in the T-Mobile Tour team was far from certain – there’s no London start to capitalise on, and his team-mate Gerald Ciolek will probably be narrowly ahead of him in the pecking order.

But there’s another reason. The possibility of partnering Wiggins to a gold medal in the Madison, and perhaps even a solo gold in the points race.

PROTESTS

I can hear the protests already: A Tour stage is much more prestigious and could earn him a professional contract for the rest of his career.

True, but being a member of Britain’s elite band of Olympic gold medallists will set him up for life, professionally and financially.

Look at Wiggins. From listening to the number people who continually write him off because he fails to match up to expectations on the road you’d think the guy was useless. Remember Chris Boardman, an Olympic winner who went on to have great success on the road but because he didn’t win the Tour it still wasn’t enough for some.

Wiggins has got an Olympic medal of every colour and was awarded the OBE before he turned 25. If he can win a gold in Beijing and, feasibly, London – he’ll still only be 32 – he will be up there with Sir Steve Redgrave in the pantheon of British greats.

It’s impossible to gauge exactly what an Olympic gold medal is worth to an individual in financial terms – no such estimates exist – but it is in the millions. Were Wiggins to reach those lofty heights he too would be knighted, his views would be sought from politicians and top-ranking sports administrators, he’d be able to dictate his own advance fee for an autobiography and the phone would never stop ringing.

That’s the value of Olympic gold – it’s worth a dozen three-year contracts (albeit very lucrative ones) from the top trade teams. Besides, with that level of profile the pro contract offers would be flooding in anyway.

MAINSTREAM

And, with the greatest respect to the events, he could win Paris-Roubaix every year between now and 2012, and take the prologue of the Tour half a dozen times too and it still wouldn’t match that.

Denigrating the Olympic track events is easy because the top roadmen don’t take part. But you don’t just rock up at the Olympics, beat a few half-baked novices from a bunch of obscure countries and sail back with gold in your back pocket. The Olympics are the peak of track cycling and the best of the best will be going all out for glory.

The fact more than 400 riders have registered for next week’s Sydney World Cup – a record entry – shows the importance of Olympic qualification.

So the debate has to begin and end here. The Olympics comes round only once every four years and every time it makes lasting heroes for the mainstream. An Olympic gold in August or three Tour stages in July. What would get Cavendish the greater publicity in the UK, the front pages and the primetime television appearances?

Exactly. The Tour can wait another year.