Rating the Riders of MotoGP: Ben Spies

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In the last of our series looking back at the riders of 2013, we come to the unluckiest man on the grid. Ben Spies’ season was a thing of nightmares, ending with his decision to retire. Here’s a review of his year.

Ben Spies – Championship Position: 21st – Rating: Attitude 9/10, Luck 1/10

Up until Qatar 2012, Ben Spies’ career had been something of a fairytale. Talent spotted by his later crew chief Tom Houseworth, he took the fight to Mat Mladin in the AMA and beat him fair and square.

He won the World Superbike title at his first attempt, on tracks he hadn’t seen until Friday morning practice. He grabbed two podiums in his rookie MotoGP season, then a win in his second season after moving up to the factory Yamaha team. And then it all went horribly wrong.

After a series of bizarre mechanical mishaps throughout the 2012 season, Spies suffered major shoulder damage in a crash at Sepang. He had already decided to leave the factory Yamaha team, signing with Ducati to race at Pramac.

After surgery to fix the damaged tendons in his shoulder, Spies turned up at Sepang in February 2013 only to find the going tougher than expected. He skipped one day of testing, then tried to make a return three weeks later, but found himself struggling once again.

It was a sign that all was not well. Spies struggled at Qatar, and knew he was in trouble for his home race in Austin, Texas. He gritted his teeth and suffered the consequences, sustaining a severe pectoral muscle injury trying to compensate for the weakness in his shoulder. He was forced to skip Jerez and Le Mans, and tried to race at Mugello when the muscle tear had healed.

But in Italy, Spies discovered his shoulder was still too weak to control the bike properly. He took the brave and sensible decision to pull out, afraid of endangering the other riders if he found himself unable to control the bike.

It was the first of a series of brave decisions, the next one being to give his shoulder the rest it needed to recover, a decision he should have taken in the first place. He skipped Barcelona, Assen, the Sachsenring, and even his beloved Laguna Seca. He returned at last at Indianapolis, now fully fit and fully recovered. Finally, he could get his 2013 season underway.

But Ben Spies’ well of ill fortune had still not run dry. On Saturday morning, Spies left the pits during free practice, and found himself highsided onto his left shoulder, separating it in the process. He had yet to shift into second gear, so he was riding without traction control, and was thrown from the bike as a result.

It was his own fault, Spies admitted, he should have remembered that the traction control was only engaged once the bike was out of first gear.

More surgery ensued, to fix his left shoulder, and to clean up his previously injured right shoulder, but there was little news from Spies’ camp after surgery. Then, two months later, Spies announced he was retiring from motorcycle racing completely.

The medical prognosis on his shoulder was that though it would recover enough for him to function perfectly well in normal life, it would probably never be strong enough to cope with the forces involved in motorcycle racing. Ben Spies was now an ex-racer.

There were many moments of bravery through the 2013 MotoGP season, but this was perhaps both the bravest and the toughest. Spies had to admit both to himself and to the outside world that he would never be able to race again at the highest level.

As a true racer, he understood that he would never be able to accept competing at anything less than the highest level, and he decided to bow out, rather than fool himself into believing it would get better in time. Spies faced up to cold, harsh reality, and handled it with aplomb.

Ben Spies faced a lot of criticism over the past couple of seasons, some deserved, most not. He faced even more criticism of his decision to retire, but that criticism stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of injury. There were fans comparing Valentino Rossi’s leg injury and Jorge Lorenzo’s collarbone injury to Spies’ shoulder, apparently unaware of the anatomy of the shoulder.

The shoulder is the most complex joint in the human body, capable of a huge range of motion. But that mobility also makes it vulnerable, especially when exposed to the forces involved in motorcycle racing. With so much connective tissue involved, and so little blood flow to repair it, even seemingly minor damage and mean it is useless for racing. Spies recognized that, and accepted it.

Spies’ decision also flies in the face of accepted motorcycle racing wisdom. You race unless you are injured, which seems like a reasonable point to make. However, when people talk of injury, they demand visible proof – a plaster cast, bones protruding through flesh, something they can see.

They are not prepared to accept invisible problems, internal injuries, shoulder problems, or as Casey Stoner found out, debilitating conditions such as lactose intolerance. For the sake of the health of future racers, we can only hope his case will stand as a lesson to others, and they will learn to distinguish between injuries they can recover from, and those that they cannot.

Photos: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.