Type IV pili are dynamic cell surface appendages found throughout the bacteria. The ability of these structures to undergo repetitive cycles of extension and retraction underpins their crucial roles in adhesion, motility and natural competence for transformation. In the best-studied systems a dedicated retraction ATPase PilT powers pilus retraction. Curiously, a second presumed retraction ATPase PilU is often encoded immediately downstream of pilT. However, despite the presence of two potential retraction ATPases, pilT deletions lead to a total loss of pilus function, raising the question of why PilU fails to take over. Here, using the DNA-uptake pilus and mannose-sensitive haemagglutinin (MSHA) pilus of Vibrio cholerae as model systems, we show that inactivated PilT variants, defective for either ATP-binding or hydrolysis, have unexpected intermediate phenotypes that are PilU-dependent. In addition to demonstrating that PilU can function as a bona fide retraction ATPase, we go on to make the surprising discovery that PilU functions exclusively in a PilT-dependent manner and identify a naturally occurring pandemic V. cholerae PilT variant that renders PilU essential for pilus function. Finally, we show that Pseudomonas aeruginosa PilU also functions as a PilT-dependent retraction ATPase, providing evidence that the functional coupling between PilT and PilU could be a widespread mechanism for optimal pilus retraction.