Common Tread

Ask the doc: Can Ben Spies come back to professional racing?

Oct 16, 2017

Three-time AMA Superbike and 2009 World Superbike champion Ben Spies has been tantalizing his fans — not to mention the management of the MotoAmerica series — with a hint that he is considering a return to competitive racing. The obvious question is, would he be able to compete at that level with his surgically repaired right shoulder?

Speculation ramped up due to posts by Spies on social media, including this one on Instagram.

Let's see if I can still do this...#alpinestars #hjchelmets #onegoalonevision

A post shared by Ben Spies (@bspies11) on

From there, rumors took off that Spies would form a team of his own and come out of retirement to race in MotoAmerica, which would certainly add a new dimension of fan interest to the series. None of us at Common Tread know what’s going on in Spies’ mind, but I will try to address the challenges he faces trying to come back to competitive racing with his rebuilt shoulder.

Spies retired in 2013 after injuries to both shoulders left him unable to ride the way he needed to win at the professional level. He had multiple surgeries on his right shoulder. In past interviews since his retirement, Spies has said that both he and his doctors realize his shoulder is not capable of performing at the level needed for professional racing. He has said that sometimes just sleeping on the injured right shoulder the wrong way has caused it to pop out of joint.

So, is it realistic to think he could come back?

Shoulder injuries have ended racing careers before and they are no fun for us recreational riders, either. Having had shoulder surgery for an injury that also required a new anchor for my biceps tendon, I can tell you that it was the most painful surgery I have undergone and involved the most grueling and painful rehabilitation. I should have a similar surgery on the other side. That will happen when I can no longer use my arm and not one moment before. Rehab was miserable.

I have no personal knowledge of Spies’ injuries and surgeries, but based on published reports and statements from his race teams, it appears he has had two acromio-clavicular (AC) joint separations (the clavicle is the shoulder’s anchor) and two repairs, one of which used cadaver tendons as anchors. On the troublesome right side, there was reportedly damage to the lining of the shoulder joint, requiring evacuation of bits of cartilage and some trimming of what was likely a ragged edge.

Double shoulder surgery! This wil be #rad

A post shared by Ben Spies (@bspies11) on

Spies has been doing some off-road riding and training, but would he be able to race competitively again?

For more insight, I consulted a local authority, Andrew Kuntz, MD, FACOS who is an Assistant Professor of Orthopedics at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in repairing and replacing shoulder joints. Even in normal cases, shoulder rehabilitation is long! Six months is not uncommon and all of it hurts. While you will be sure that physical therapists are spawned from the ninth Circle of Hell, they are truly angels in disguise.

Of course, getting back to normal depends on what your “normal” was like before injury. For a champion racer like Spies, that normal is peak physical fitness. How achievable is that, and more importantly, how reasonable is that?

I asked that very question of Dr. Kuntz. Achievable? Yes, with intense rehabilitation and of course, excellent surgical technique and decision-making, he could theoretically recover appropriate flexibility and strength to competitively and even successfully race. Provided his expected pain was sufficiently tolerable (more on that later).

With regard to reasonability, Dr. Kuntz’s sage reply was an analogy, likening all of the components of the new joint as well as all of the muscles, tendons and ligaments to the brake pads on your bike. The harder you use them, the more rapidly they wear out. Even the fitness and strength training needed to prepare to race at the MotoAmerica level probably qualifies as joint abuse and puts major stress across the reconstructed shoulder-clavicle-shoulder blade apparatus.

AC separation injuries are often accompanied by loss of muscle mass and strength through the back of the shoulder after injury and reconstruction. This generally reversible muscle atrophy may misalign how the shoulder functions and create the need for compensation, asymmetric muscle use and yes, you guessed it, pain. In fact, we saw this happen when Spies came back from one of his injuries while racing in MotoGP. He injured chest muscles in a race because he was compensating for his weakened shoulder.

Pain may make one shoulder work better than the other when you need them working equally well at high speed. Not working in concert puts you at risk for repeat crashing and injury. This is why rehab programs strongly target the back of the shoulder and the surrounding muscles — and why a top athlete needs an individualized program to identify and fix specific deficits in muscle strength and function.

From the completely unofficial position of a long-time motorcyclist and surgeon, do I think it is reasonable that he could rehab his shoulder enough to successfully race? I do! He is young, fit, and determined. But I worry about repeat injury and its management if he crashes and lands on his shoulder again.

Why worry about another AC separation? Can't Spies just get it repaired again? Sure, but it may not work as well as the prior repair, and is at risk of not stabilizing the joint well enough to have normal everyday function, let alone competitive racing abilities. Spies has said in interviews that another injury would require him to have a full shoulder replacement, and professional road racers inevitably crash. It’s part of the game. After all, that’s how this conversation started — with the aftermath of a crash.