The Walrus Blog

Igor Kenk's storefront on Queen Street in Toronto

Why did Igor Kenk keep more than 2,800 bikes in storage?

That was the question posed by last Saturday’s front-page National Post article. Buried within the article was a possible answer: preparation for the apocalypse. “Det.-Const. Dennis says ‘Mr. Kenk told him ‘the apocalypse is coming.’ In the future when we have run out of oil, we will all need bikes to get around, the logic goes, and Mr. Kenk will have a few in storage to offer us.”

Read “Geared Up”, Bill Reynold’s June 2008 piece on cycling in Toronto and bike culture.

The alleged bike thief has captured the attention of the Canadian press since July 16th, when police claimed to have observed him directing a thief to steal a bike for him. As the investigation spiraled out, more and more bikes were discovered in rented warehouses across Toronto. And more and more fascinating angles on the story developed: Toronto’s alt-weekly NOW asked why it took a whole decade to bust Igor, when he had such a reputation for being a dealer of stolen bikes, while the Globe and Mail discussed Igor’s moral stance, as taped by a 23-year-old radio documentarian Lewis Farrell(“Steal This Bike”). It also covered the arrest of Igor’s wife, Jeanie Chung, an accomplished concert pianist and “lovely, lovely person.”

Clearly, the charismatic Slovenian immigrant makes for a good story. There are questions about his sanity, and the National Post reports that the lead investigator wants him “to get looked at.” However, the constable who arrested him says that “he’s all there.”

What if Igor Kenk isn’t mad?

Suppose the world is running towards a future of oil scarcity. How would we respond? Psychology professor Michael E. Mills writes:

Evolutionary psychology suggests we will tend to be altruistic (not expect repayment) toward close kin (especially those with high reproductive value), and we will tend to be nice to non-kin with whom we have established an on-going, mutually beneficial reciprocal relationship. We will tend to be selfish otherwise. Also, we may be spiteful (hurt another even at a cost to self) to reduce the inclusive fitness of others, especially when they are reducing ours or the overall resource pie is shrinking.

Hoarding might be a natural human response to scarcity. Investors amass gold in uncertain times, governments hold oil reserves, Wal-Mart shoppers stock up on rice when food riots are on CNN. Granted, the demand for bikes hasn’t outstripped supply. But when other resources come up short, people might grab for something—anything—that could help them feel prepared. As written in The Oil Drum’s Peak Oil Booklet, “We know that peak oil will be here soon, and we feel like we should be doing something. But what?”

Ride bikes, many would answer. The Internet is full of people who are dreaming and planning for a bicycle-powered future. “Beyond Peak” has a list of bicycle parts to begin stockpiling. In The Wake, “A Collective Manual-in-progress for Outliving Civilization”, also has a list of bicycle-related “Items to Accumulate.” In World Without Oil, participants in this “collaborative imagining of the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis” chronicled an alternate reality online. As part of the game/project, they created videos like “The urban bicyclist rides out the oil shock” (about the championship of bikes when oil reached $6/gallon) and “Bike Theft” (about regular, nice guys who lost their jobs in a collapsed economy and had to resort to bike theft).

The response of thieving and hoarding bikes is, of course, precisely the response not to take. We will navigate this century’s environmental challenges far more gracefully if we take an approach that puts the community ahead of the individual. The online PowerPoint book Peak Oil and the Fate of Humanity advises us to increase construction of bike lanes. This is a common-sense, community-oriented solution to a global problem. If cyclists continue to band together and lobby, we can hope to transform our infrastructure into one that supports non-petrol forms of transportation.

Maybe Igor Kenk wasn’t preparing for the future (if that’s what he was intending to do) in the most coherent, well-thought manner: certainly his Bicycle Clinic on Queen Street couldn’t hope to move that many bikes through its claustrophobic storefront. But there’s something there, something in his behaviour, that speaks to an essential human instinct: this pack-rat impulse, wired together with survival strategies, deep in our neural circuitry.

I was one of the many Torontonians who had my bicycle stolen this summer. I roamed among the skeletons of thousands of bicycles in the rented police warehouse during the public viewings, hoping to find my beloved ride among the remnants of the bikes that had been recovered from Igor’s warehouses. As sombre as the mood was, it is uplifting to have this much media attention on bicycles. The move to recover all these bikes indicates that the city is ready to take cycling seriously. Whether or not we take apocalyptic visions of an oil-scarce future seriously or not, it’s certainly a good idea to develop bike transit and stop bike theft. A devious scoundrel, a “dark spot” on Queen West, a madman, or a strategic post-oil thinker: whichever of these he may be, we can thank Igor Kenk and the Toronto police for bringing cycling to national attention.

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  • matt duggan

    Everyone knew that Igor held down a corner of the Bermuda triangle into which the stolen bikes of Toronto disappeared – what no one suspected was that he IS the Bermuda triangle.
    As to his hoarding impulse and mental health, I think the whole thing just spun out of control on him. He loved the attention – performing nightly out front of his gritty little shop, lording it over the street people, alarming the neighbors – unable to stop taking in bikes until he had so many there was no way to turn them around to sell. His system got overwhelmed and the garages filled up.
    I don’t put much stock in his self-serving moral rationalizations or the notion that he’s some kind of visionary of the coming apocalypse. I think it’s darker than that. He’s an excellent bike mechanic and is very knowledgeable about bikes. He also understood the deep emotional attachment many people have with their bikes. I read someone describing the scene at one of his garages being taken apart by the cops as looking like “the Silence of the Lambs, only for bikes.” I believe there’s something to that.
    Regarding the Metro police in all of this – they’re pathetic. For years it’s been routine for the police to advise bike theft victims to check with Igor about their missing ride. Can you imagine the police suggesting you go look for your stolen car on the lot of the local Chev – Olds dealership?

  • http://N/A Timothy Auble

    What a wally, who is going to have the money for the bicycles when everything goes awry?

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