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Igor Kenk. Still from documentary Pedal Power. (Cogent/Benger Productions)
Igor Kenk. Still from documentary Pedal Power. (Cogent/Benger Productions)

'Planet Igor'

Confessions of a bicycle hoarder Add to ...

When Igor Kenk watched TV, he'd flip between business news and the Speed Channel.

When he needed music to smooth the day's rough edges in his rundown bike shop, he turned to postmodern classical.

And when he sat down like Tony Soprano with a female therapist last fall, Mr. Kenk was almost apologetic, in his profanely articulate way, as he rationalized his compulsion to hoard bicycles.

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"It would sound idiotic," he said, "but basically, I would have been ready, if shit falls down the drain, I would be able to service hundreds of thousands of people with their bicycle needs."

These are but a few of the gleanings of Robin Benger and Christopher Sumpton, a filmmaking duo who followed Toronto's most notorious bike repairman and alleged thief for nearly a decade, through his high-profile arrest last summer right up to when his bail was revoked in December.

Since then, the 50-year-old Mr. Kenk, an ex-cop who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Cold-War Slovenia, has been held awaiting trial in the cramped Don Jail, from which he sends the occasional letter in compact, tidy, pencil-written script.

"He's an eccentric, he's an iconoclast and he has a relationship with criminality and violence, which is interesting," said Mr. Benger, who first met Mr. Kenk in 1999 at his Queen Street West shop, where he'd gone to look for his own stolen bike.

He didn't find it, but the veteran documentarian found the grease-stained Mr. Kenk to be a character as inscrutably complex as the dim jumble of two-wheelers, junk and marginalized street people that populated what they called "Planet Igor."

Mr. Benger returned time and again with a camera crew, and is now poised, with Mr. Sumpton, to release Pedal Power, a close-up look at "the villains and visionaries of the new global bike culture." The one-hour documentary will air Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV's Doc Zone.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers have had to hold back some of their most colourful Kenk footage for now, for two reasons.

First, when Mr. Benger pitched the project as an all-about-Igor film after Mr. Kenk's arrest and subsequent police raids, the CBC asked him to widen the focus to the global growth in urban cycling culture and how large cities are coping - an issue made all the more timely by the then-unforeseen death of bike courier Darcy Allan Sheppard in a run-in with former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant's car on Bloor Street.

Second, the Crown has been slow to bring its case against Mr. Kenk, which involves nearly 100 criminal allegations related to the 2,865 bikes and illegal drugs police seized from his properties. The case won't even be considered for trial until a preliminary hearing in March, which restricts what can be reported about Mr. Kenk's past activities in the meantime.

Still, viewers will get to see and hear Mr. Kenk briefly throughout Pedal Power, which includes footage shot while he was out on bail last fall. (Bail was revoked after a December run-in between Mr. Kenk and the owners of one of the garages he rented to store bikes and assorted junk.)

As a condition of his release, Mr. Kenk was ordered to seek counselling for his hoarding behaviour. Three one-hour sessions were arranged with a therapist on Bloor Street, but only the first session went ahead before bail was revoked.

With the cameras rolling, Mr. Kenk shared with the therapist what Mr. Benger described as his "macro theory" of a world economy on the brink of collapse due to its dependence on fossil fuels, in which bicycles would ride to the rescue.

Sparse in the film but fresh in Mr. Benger's mind are other observations from his many hours with Mr. Kenk, a "completely unbound" anarchic character he likened to Fagin, the fictional receiver of stolen goods in Dickens' Oliver Twist, with a similar coterie of fringe-dwelling minions.

His bike shop, which sits within a well-aimed maniacal shout of Mr. Benger's Queen Street offices, is "an amazing monument to pack-rattery," where the filmmaker often watched him at work.

"I've seen him operate so many times, and his ability to turn five dollars into a fifty-dollar gig is unbelievable," Mr. Benger said. "It's like watching a juggler."

All of which was set to the unlikely soundtrack of Mr. Kenk's discerning musical playlist, which went a long way to explaining Mr. Kenk's also-unlikely live-in romance with Jeannie Chung, an acclaimed concert pianist.

"Jeannie walked into the shop; he was playing Gubaidulina and she recognized it," Mr. Benger said, referring to Russian-born pianist Sofia Gubaidulina, whose unconventional compositions and religious bent put her at odds with Soviet-era officialdom.

Still, as much as he has come to know about Mr. Kenk, Mr. Benger must wait with everyone else for a court to answer the central lingering question since his arrest last summer: "If Igor was stealing bikes, why would the police allow him to do it for 14 years?"

In the meantime, ever-gentrifying Queen Street has been missing something in Mr. Kenk's absence, he said.

"Queen Street represents, as Yorkville used to, colourful characters on the street, and Igor was all out there," Mr. Benger said. "I mean, I like Igor, and personally, I miss Igor on the street."



CORRECTION: Anthony Corindia, an independent director, shot extensive footage of Igor Kenk used in the documentary Pedal Power, by Robin Benger and Christopher Sumpton.

 

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