Mess Media




A bike messenger without a bike

Mess Media, December 6, 2009

By Joe Hendry

Stolen bikes

Toronto like most cities has a massive problem with bike theft and many of its victims are bike messengers. The possibility of having my bike stolen is always in the back my mind whenever my bike is out of my sight and every time I walk out of a building I am relieved to see my bike still there.

For years most cyclists in Toronto suspected that Igor Kenk, owner of a notorious used bike store on Queen Street West, played a part in the stolen bike racket. Anyone that had their bike stolen was first advised to go and check out "Igor's bike shop" on Queen Street just east of Strachan. Despite what was common knowledge amongst Toronto’s cyclists, it appeared that Igor would never be held accountable for his sketchy dealings with stolen bikes.


I first met Igor in 1993 when his shop was located further west on Queen St between Shaw and Ossington, across from the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. At the time I was living on Shaw Street, a little south of Queen Street and I just started working as a bike messenger. I was happy to have a bike shop nearby, especially one that was often open as late as midnight.

The neighborhood was diverse and generally non-threatening but it could have its moments. Technically it was a part of Parkdale which has had a reputation as a tough neighborhood since at least the 1950's. Its reputation was generally due to its large number of halfway houses but most of them were further west past Dufferin in the heart of the neighborhood.

The homeless people near my apartment seemed to consist mostly of men and women who were forced out of the Mental Health Centre too early and they didn't have the means or capacity to find their own housing. The prostitutes that hung out on the corners of the side streets were tough. When I first moved there I was amazed to see one of them working on crutches with her leg in a cast. But there were also signs the neighborhood was changing. New restaurants were opening. There was an artist's co-op building across from the hookers' favorite corner and the Candy Factory at Queen and Shaw would soon be converted into trendy lofts.

Igor's shop fit right in. You were just as likely to see a crack head hanging out front as a more upscale yuppie passing by to ask about buying a used bike. Sometimes I could hear Igor yelling at a potential customer from my front porch,

 "Get the fuck out of my store!"

I would smile to myself because I knew that the customer probably politely suggested that the Igor's asking price was a little high for whatever bike he was trying to sell. I never witnessed Igor make a successful sale of a bike as it always seemed result in a confrontation.

Igor was a tall, crusty ex-courier with long greasy, stringy blond hair. In the summer he almost never wore a shirt and he seemed to do all of his work on the street instead of inside the shop. He was a self-taught bike mechanic who often employed unorthodox tools and methods to fix bikes. He trued bicycle wheels using an adjustable wrench rather than a spoke wrench and he seemed to find use for a hammer in every repair job. What he lacked in customer service skills, he made up for with his ability to tell unbelievable and exaggerated stories in his Eastern-European accent.

I spent a lot of time over there as my old, used and battered mountain bike needed a lot of help to withstand a rookie courier's first Toronto winter on the road. I loved the atmosphere of people working on bikes, talking about bikes and bumping into other messengers who came by to buy parts or have their bikes fixed when all the other bike stores were closed. I even liked the smell of rubber, oil and steel around the shop.

It could get quite crowded because most people knew that if you needed your bike any time soon you better stand around and make sure Igor works on it or he will start working on something else.

One night when I was there, a haggard and disheveled man, uncomfortably wheeled a sweet, well kept, black Cannondale mountain bike down Queen Street. As he approached the shop, I noticed him holding a u-lock against the bike's top tube. It was locked to the down tube of the bike and he had to hold it to keep it from sliding down the tube and interfering with the pedals and cranks. The Cannondale's clipless pedals contrasted with its owner's old and torn, black sneakers that were in no condition to handle the shoe cleats necessary to clip in to those pedals.

I immediately suspected the bike was stolen but Igor seemed to know this customer well. An invitation to come inside the shop was rare as Igor preferred to work out front and deal with customers there too. There wasn't much point to going in the store anyway as it was mainly a storage room with bikes and parts piled everywhere. It was literally an indoor bike junk yard. Once in awhile I witnessed a customer go directly into the store only to be quickly pursued and ejected by Igor, but not this guy.

Igor took him and his bike straight inside to talk. Shortly thereafter the haggard looking "customer" came bouncing out of the shop with a big smile instead of his bike. I could see a hint of some money peeking out of his front pocket as if he just finished stuffing it in there.

After that incident I cut back on my visits to the store as I had also become a good enough bike mechanic to handle most of my bike's needs and I was saving for a new bike in the spring.

After a good winter of steady earnings I rewarded myself with a new red Stumpjumper mountain bike. It was only the second brand new bike I had ever bought myself and it was a big step up from the department store mountain bike that got through me the winter. The first thing I did was cut the handle bars down to make it easier for me to fit between cars on the road. Then I put hockey tape over all the logos so it wouldn't look as attractive to thieves.

I absolutely loved being a bike courier but working all day on a good bike made it easier and that much more fun. The first week on my new bike was like my first week on the job all over again. Sometimes I would stop and think to myself.

"I can't believe that I actually get paid to ride like this!"

Everything was so much fun. Riding down stairs was smoother. Bunny hopping was easier and the brakes always worked in the rain. I was faster and not so tired at the end of the day.

As I reached home on the Friday of my first week working with the new bike, my dispatcher, Kammi called to me over the radio,

"One Twelve Joe. Can you pick up an overnight at 33 Draper St. Keep it in your bag until Monday"

"Ten-Four," I said.

I never left my bike outside. Not even the crappy department store bike. I always brought it in my apartment. Since I was just outside my house and I was going straight back out, I locked my bike to the wooden railings of my front porch. I ran upstairs to grab a quick drink before I made the pick-up. I was only upstairs for a couple of minutes and my bike was gone by the time I came back down.

I was in shock! I thought maybe I put it somewhere else. I wasn't thinking properly so I ran up stairs to check my apartment for it and I ran back down. Then I noticed the wood railing was broken. Someone had been watching me, quickly broke the railing and took off with my bike with the lock still attached to the front wheel and frame. I ran across the street to look around the Mental Health Centre property as it had a large brick fence that would make a good hiding spot for a thief.  I saw people walking everywhere but no bike thief and no bike. I couldn't understand how someone carrying a locked bike in daylight could make such a clean getaway.

I've had bikes stolen before. It's a huge violation and a loss and it left me bitter but it was just a fraction of the loss and bitterness I felt at that moment. How could someone just take something so important from another person they don't even know? I was lost. I didn't know what to do and I felt more stupid than angry.

My bike wasn't just a piece of property it was part of who I am. It was how I earned my living. It was my entertainment. It was how I got around the city and how I visited family in the suburbs. It was my suit of armor.  It tamed the toughest neighborhoods when I rode it.

On my bike I was always moving forward and always thinking. I planned my future while riding. I dealt with tragedy, disappointment and emotional pain by going for a bike ride. No matter what life in the city threw at me, I could ride through it.  I could always ride until the physical pain dwarfed any emotional pain and by the time my ride was done I was ready to face anything and move on.

Before I became a bike messenger I was irritated by the question, "So what do you do?" They never added "for a living" but that's what they meant. I know people were usually just trying to politely start a conversation but I always felt I was so much more than what I happened to do for a living at that moment.

Once I became a courier and I embraced the job, what I did and who I was became one and the same. When a banker says "I am a banker," he means "I earn my living as a banker." But I wasn't just earning a living as a bike messenger. I was a bike messenger in every part of my life. At work, at play, when I watched television or when I went shopping. I dressed the same way on the job as off the job. I wore bike shoes everywhere I went because I got there on my bike. I wore my messenger bag everywhere I went without questioning if it was necessary. I watched the weather channel more than any other because I always needed to know what was coming and to be prepared.

The job became part of how I talked, how I listened and how I observed life. I sometimes caught myself saying "10-4" on my house phone instead of "bye." I contacted many of my work friends over the radio after hours and on weekends. I went to messenger parties with signs on the door that said "No shop talk allowed tonight" and still that was most of what we talked about because it was the biggest part of us.

And now in an instant I became a bike messenger without a bike - impossibility. I was bikeless and without the bike I would be  jobless. I was nothing.

Although I didn't work until Monday, I needed a bike now. My old mountain bike needed a new bottom bracket. I had already loaned its front wheel to one of my friends. I didn't want to go back to it anyway. Maybe I could trade it in and put it towards something better? So I walked over to Igor's to find something.

As I told Igor about the theft of my bike, he didn't seem comfortable. There was something different about him. I started to get a strong sense that my Stumpjumper was somewhere in his store but I couldn't do anything about it. He changed the subject by suggesting I could get a much better deal on a road bike than a mountain bike and that a road bike is better for courier work anyway. Igor made the case for a road bike by bragging about his days as a messenger.

“I used to ride a hundred kilometres a day, every day, up to Lawrence, ten times a day. I was the fastest courier in Toronto. None of these guys on their mountain bikes could keep up with me.”

At that time everyone was riding mountain bikes in Toronto so the cost of used ones was high. No one wanted a road bike so deals could be had. I grew up riding a road bike and I only switched to a mountain bike when I got the department store bike for free from a friend after my last road bike was stolen. I thought the mountain bike would be easier to ride over Toronto’s streetcar tracks and I thought it might handle the winter better.

I don't know if Igor felt guilty or he was doing something nice but he sold me a very good used white Miele road bike for $150 plus what was left of my old bike. He said I could pay him when I got paid in one week. In all the times I was at his store I never saw him give credit to anyone. I was touched by the gesture. Maybe I had misjudged him.

I left the store and took my new bike for a ride. It was lighter and faster than the Stumpjumper. I think I'm more of a road bike person than a mountain bike person because by the end of the weekend I didn't miss the Stumpjumper at all. I felt very lucky. I was a bike messenger again.

Working on the road bike was even better than the Stumpjumper. Downtown Toronto is flat so I really don't need the low mountain bike gears. Bunny hopping the curbs weren't a problem and there was no difference crossing the streetcar tracks. I did avoid riding down stairs as much as possible on the road bike though as I wasn’t confident the wheels could handle it.

Just after lunch I was pulling up to 120 Adelaide and out of the corner of my eye, I saw two young guys running toward me. It struck me because I remembered seeing them running in my direction a little earlier. I locked my bike to the post and ring rack and I went in to make my drop. When I came out the same two guys were sitting at the top of the stairs in front of the building. They were staring at my bike.

One of them said, "Nice Miele. Where did you get it?"

I said "I just bought it on Friday night at Igor's"

"That's my bike. It was stolen last week from my work. I just put the new handle bar tape on before it was stolen," he said.

His name was Alex and apparently he worked at the Burger King in the underground mall under the Royal Bank Plaza and his bike was stolen from there the week before.

I believed him. I knew exactly how he felt but I felt like I'd been ripped off again. I would be a bikeless messenger again. I was so pissed I turned over the bike and told Alex to write down the serial number.

"Let's go to cops right now and get this asshole arrested," I said.

I booked off work and we headed over to 52 Division at Dundas and University. We told the desk cop the story but he acted like we were needlessly bothering him. He was more interested in my two-way radio than he was our situation. He said they couldn’t do anything because Alex hadn’t reported the bike as stolen and the serial number meant nothing because bike manufacturers repeated them on multiple bikes.

 One of my first insights gained as a messenger was that some police don’t know much about many of the laws they are supposed to enforce and those ones will lie to you to make things easier for them. One of the first times I was pulled over by a cop while working, he almost ran me over with his cruiser.

It was raining hard. The ground was wet and slippery and I was flying west along Dundas Street. As I approached the intersection at Bay Street the green light turned to amber. In good weather I probably could have slammed the brakes and stopped in time but with the rain and wet roads I felt it was safer to keep going and I was already so busy in the rain that day. I knew the light would turn red before I made it all the way through the intersection but I had figured out that in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) there was a three second interval between my red light and the green light for the opposing traffic.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see a woman holding an umbrella start to leave the curb before her light turned green. She couldn’t see me coming so I moved further to the left, closer to the middle of the road.  I got up out of my saddle, stood on the pedals and mashed as hard and fast as I could. As the light turned red, I started my count, “one, one thousand, two, one thousand.” I made it safely through before the Bay Street traffic got their green and I passed the woman as wide as possible so as not to startle her. She likely didn’t even know I was there.

I made my left turn a couple of blocks ahead at Centre Ave so I could lock up at the back of 393 University Ave. Just as I was turning I saw a white car out of the corner of my eye. It was a cop. He flew by me, cut me off and hit his loud buzzer to tell me to put over. I had to swerve to avoid getting hit. I pulled over and cop was already out of his car screaming.

``I HATE COURIERS``, he yelled!

“What the hell?” I thought, “Did I accidently crash a movie set again.”

He went on to tell me he was a former traffic cop for twelve years and that couriers showed nothing but contempt for the law. He then went on to list every traffic violation he ever witnessed a bike messenger commit and some of them were legal.  He was no longer a traffic cop so he had to get his ticket book out of the trunk of his cruiser to write me a ticket.

``You ran the red at Bay and you swerved into traffic for no reason. I could write you a bunch of tickets``, he said. He wrote me a ticket for running a red light.

``You better not fight this ticket or I’ll write you another one for dangerous driving`` he threatened.

``That’s six points against your license and if you don’t have a license the points will be waiting for you, whenever you do get one`` he informed me.

"Bull shit. That’s a lie!" I wanted to say but I learned that it's best to fight with cops in court not in the street.

His lie was meant to intimidate me. I said little and took my ticket from his hand. Despite his threats, I would later fight the ticket in court. I doubted he would show up in court at all because he wasn’t a traffic cop. It would be his only ticket in court that day. I was right. He didn’t show and the judge threw it out.

The desk cop at 52 Division reminded me of the ticket cop. He told us whatever he could to make his life easier, not help us.  Since the police were no help. Alex and I went to Igor’s to confront him about the stolen bike. We would bluff him and threaten to go to the police if he didn’t fix everything for us.

Igor was so relieved that we came to him ``before`` we went to the cops that he gave Alex his bike back and he replaced it with an old faded orange 1982 Peugeot Sprint road bike for me. I picked it because it reminded me of the red Peugeot I rode all through high school.

I never went back to Igor’s store again.

Igor's shop
Fifteen years later, in the summer of 2008, the whole city, in fact much of the country was talking about the bust of the biggest bike theft ring in the country's history. It was Igor. He was arrested after police witnessed him direct another man to steal a bike near his store. The subsequent searches of various properties and garages owned or rented by Igor led to the recovery of almost 3,000 bikes from junkers to high end racing bikes. He was such a pack rat that I wouldn't be surprised if my Stumpjumper was among them.

I still have my orange Peugeot Sprint. I converted it to a fixed gear after the gears froze one too many times in the winter of 1998. It doesn't get ridden much anymore as I have a treated myself to a few newer bikes since then but I did take out for a ride when I heard the news about Igor. I even rode it down a couple of stairs.