OBJECTIVES Implant-related infection is one of the most devastating complications in orthopaedic surgery. Many surface and/or material modifications have been developed in order to minimise this problem; however, most of the in vitro studies did not evaluate bacterial adhesion in the presence of eukaryotic cells, as stated by the 'race for the surface' theory. Moreover, the adherence of numerous clinical strains with different initial concentrations has not been studied. METHODS We describe a method for the study of bacterial adherence in the presence of preosteoblastic cells. For this purpose we mixed different concentrations of bacterial cells from collection and clinical strains of staphylococci isolated from implant-related infections with preosteoblastic cells, and analysed the minimal concentration of bacteria able to colonise the surface of the material with image analysis. RESULTS Our results show that clinical strains adhere to the material surface at lower concentrations than collection strains. A destructive effect of bacteria on preosteoblastic cells was also detected, especially with higher concentrations of bacteria. CONCLUSIONS The method described herein can be used to evaluate the effect of surface modifications on bacterial adherence more accurately than conventional monoculture studies. Clinical strains behave differently than collection strains with respect to bacterial adherence.Cite this article: M. Martinez-Perez, C. Perez-Jorge, D. Lozano, S. Portal-Nuñez, R. Perez-Tanoira, A. Conde, M. A. Arenas, J. M. Hernandez-Lopez, J. J. de Damborenea, E. Gomez-Barrena, P. Esbrit, J. Esteban. Evaluation of bacterial adherence of clinical isolates of Staphylococcus sp. using a competitive model: An in vitro approach to the "race for the surface" theory. Bone Joint Res 2017;6:315-322. DOI: 10.1302/2046-3758.65.BJR-2016-0226.R2.