Preston’s cricketer-turned-TV personality Freddie Flintoff’s latest adventure sees him cycling deep into the Amazon with a tree hugger...
From Del Boy and Rodney Trotter to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, odd couples make for great TV.
The latest unlikely pairing to hit screens is straight-talking ex-cricketer and self-confessed environmental sceptic Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, and cycling fanatic and “diehard tree hugger” Rob Penn.
In the two-part Sky1 show Flintoff’s Road To Nowhere, we see the duo bicker, banter and bike their way along Brazil’s Trans-Amazonian Highway to educate viewers about the rainforest.
Along the 1,200km route, Preston-born Flintoff – whose only mountain biking before the show was done “in the woods out back of Macclesfield” – takes every opportunity to complain about the rough roads and uncomfortable saddle to an ever-chipper Penn, who has cycled his way through 50 different countries.
Nevertheless, friendship blossomed between the pair over the 25-day journey, and former England captain Flintoff, known to his legion of fans as ‘Freddie’, describes Penn as “a first-rate companion”.
“Rob’s the perfect bloke for this - knowledgeable and so enthusiastic about everything he does.
“I liked to wind him up though, and got on his nerves a bit,” admits the likeable star.
“We’re different in every way, in appearance, in the way we live our lives at home, but the one thing we share is a passion for adventure.”
Fun-loving Flintoff made the most of his downtime on the gruelling, blisteringly hot journey – we see him drenching Penn with a water hose, enjoying a kickabout with a local football team, and frantically chasing after a greased piglet at a rodeo.
But there’s a serious message amid the larking around, as the pair learn how man is destroying the Amazon, visiting a gold mine in the middle of the forest and watching the goings-on at a large cattle ranch.
Before setting off, Flintoff described himself as an environmental sceptic.
“Everyone was going on about the rainforest a few years ago and when I was at school, but it seems like it’s slipped off the radar a bit. The show was an opportunity for me to learn more about it,” the 36-year-old says.
“You hear one thing, then the next: it’s the rainforest, the ozone layer, then something else. Although I didn’t walk away from the Amazon with any hard or fast solutions, I did get an understanding of what’s going on.”
The highlight of the trip for the dad-of-three came at the end of a day teaching English at a school.
He recalls: “The kids were aged from five to 15 or 16, there were about 20 of them, and it was brilliant, so much fun. They wanted us to go swimming in the river afterwards - I’m not a big fan of swimming in rivers - but because I had to, I went in. That was my favourite bit.”
There was the occasional low point, however. “I trained before I went, but it wasn’t easy because of the heat, the terrain, the bike, the lack of sleep, the places we were sleeping,” Flintoff recalls.
“Some of the places we stayed in, especially at the beginning, it was like a baptism of fire. I remember getting on a boat for an 18-hour ride down the river to where we were supposed to start cycling. That was lovely and initially, I thought it was going to be a good trip.
“The first night was all right, but the second, well, I ended up in a truck stop on the side of the road with a load of bins and chickens.”
Then there was the kit - and that saddle, which Flintoff termed a “natural snip”.
“The bike was brilliant, although Rob chose bikes without suspension and, after about 10 minutes, I was questioning his decision. He tried to give an answer, but I don’t even know what he said. I must have asked him at least 10 times a day.”
Since retiring from cricket with a recurring knee injury in 2010, the former BBC Sports Personality of the Year winner’s popularity and good humour have made him a natural on the small screen.
As well as fronting an ad campaign for supermarket chain Morrisons, he’s a team captain on Sky1 sports panel show A League Of Their Own and in 2012, fronted a BBC One documentary about his battle – and that of other sports stars – with depression (2012’s Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport).
“I’ll always miss playing cricket, no matter how old I get. But, you know, I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do half the things that I’ve done – and that’s down to sport,” he says.
“I’ll always regard myself as a cricketer, I suppose, but I love what I’m doing.”
Asked how his A League Of Their Own co-stars James Corden, Jamie Redknapp and Jack Whitehall would fare on this kind of an adventure, he laughs.
“James couldn’t cycle all that way, and Jack? I’d end up strangling him. I get on well with Jack, but spending a month next to him, come on.”
Road To Nowhere has made Flintoff more environmentally aware and careful about “getting things in the right bins”.
It’s also inspired him to do some further travel: “There’s a big world out there that I want to see more of.” But most of all, he’s hoping the show will raise awareness among viewers.
“The rainforest isn’t just Brazil’s problem or the people of the Amazon’s. It’s everyone’s problem and we’re all responsible,” he says.
“I hope it provokes thought. Maybe it will light a little spark inside the people watching it and make them want to do something about the rainforest.”
:: Flintoff’s Road To Nowhere begins on Sky1 on Friday, April 4