The time delays between the multiple images of a strong lens system, together with a model of the lens mass distribution, allow a one-step measurement of a cosmological distance, namely, the ‘time-delay distance’ of the lens (DΔt) that encodes cosmological information. The time-delay distance depends sensitively on the radial profile slope of the lens mass distribution; consequently, the lens slope must be accurately constrained for cosmological studies. We show that the slope cannot be constrained in two-image systems with single-component compact sources, whereas it can be constrained in systems with two-component sources provided that the separation between the image components can be measured with milliarcsecond precisions, which is not feasible in most systems. In contrast, we demonstrate that spatially extended images of the source galaxy in two-image systems break the radial slope degeneracy and allow DΔt to be measured with uncertainties of a few per cent. Deep and high-resolution imaging of the lens systems are needed to reveal the extended arcs, and stable point spread functions are required for our lens modelling technique. Two-image systems, no longer plagued by the radial profile slope degeneracy, would augment the sample of useful time-delay lenses by a factor of ∼6, providing substantial advances for cosmological studies.