Prominent South African mountain-biker Stuart Marais announced yesterday he may be forced to retire from cycling if he is unable to secure a sponsor by the end of next month.
Marais said for the past two and a half years he had been struggling to find financial backing and had been living off a severance package.
“I am a mechanical engineer by profession and the mine I was working at in Mpumalanga closed down at the beginning of 2016. I have been living off my severance package since then,” Marais told In the Bunch today.
“I have been trying to secure a sponsor and obviously things at the start were still fine because I had the capital to look after myself.
“But the time has come where things are starting to get a bit stressful and I may have to look further than just cycling.”
Marais, 29, has been prominent in the SA mountain-bike scene this year.
He won the TransCape MTB Encounter title alongside ASG-Ellsworth’s HB Kruger in February, before being the highest-placed of seven SA riders at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Stellenbosch a month later.
Despite his many top results against “financially secure” cyclists, Marais has struggled to get his foot in the door of a professional set-up.
“I have tried applying for most of the teams in SA and I have approached so many people,” he said. “But unfortunately they can only accommodate so many riders. I guess they have also not known I was looking when they were looking.
“The economy is also not that great at the moment, so I can understand that companies may not have the money they had back in the day to run or start a team.”
He said he had not given up hope as he wanted to carry on riding.
“I do not want to stop cycling,” he said. “I want to do anything I can between now and the end of July with the hope something can happen.
“But it is just one of those things [in SA’s economic climate]; many teams have folded over the last year and teams also lack the budget to expand.
“Cycling South Africa could start suffering as a result,” he added.
Marais, who formerly rode for Cargo in 2015 before that fell through, said he still intended to be on “standby” until the end of the season when teams looked for new recruits.
“I want to try sticking it out for as long as I can to see if I can still manage to get funding.
“But with that being said, most teams already have their riders who they have signed for two-year contracts and they are unable to expand.
“If you look at some of the top teams such as NAD Pro and PYGA [Euro Steel] they are already at breaking point.
“I am however confident that if I do make it to the end of the year I will be able to sign something, but there is also that possibility where no one can afford to have more riders on their teams.”
The middle of the year was the “most difficult” time of the season to find financial backing, Marais said, adding that it was a risk to wait it out until the time was right.
“There is always a possibility. I do know of some teams wanting to expand, but for me it is just difficult to consider making it to the end of the year without completely running dry and not knowing what I am going to do the next week.
“It really has reached that point where at the end of July I have to find a job. Even finding a normal job in our current economy will be a struggle, even with my engineering background.
“Things are a little bit dire and stressful at the moment if I am being honest.”
Marais admitted that there were a few other riders in the country who were also struggling. It seemed most sponsors were investing in events rather than athletes.
“That is the way the sport has been going lately. Companies are rather opting to put money into events and because there are so many events in the country the butter can only spread so thin.
“The athletes then start to suffer at the end of the day. There probably are other aspects to it, but that is one of the bigger reasons.
“I have seen with the bigger corporate companies I have approached they were quite keen to get involved with events where they would get a lot of publicity once a year, instead of directing that money into an athlete.”
Road cycling was still doing “quite well” in terms of securing backing, Marais said, but mountain-biking did not seem to attract as much support which was “sad because it is such a great sport”.