Many beginner triathletes go through a long and confusing dilemma about what bike to choose for their first races.
Short answer: If it’s just a sprint or Olympic, use a road bike or even a mountain bike if that’s all you have. You can add aero bars to a road bike to attain some of the aerodynamic benefits of a tri bike, even, and this is a nice and cost-effective compromise.
If you’re a serious triathlete and you already have a road bike for group rides, and you will be doing half Ironman distances or longer, a tri bike (or time trial bike) is ideal.
Here’s a simple flowchart outlining whether you should buy a tri bike or a road bike.
Finally, I’ve done a short video showing the differences between the two types of bikes.