Key innovations are disruptive evolutionary events that enable a species to escape constraints and rapidly diversify. After 15 years of the Lenski long-term evolution experiment with Escherichia coli, cells in one of the twelve populations evolved the ability to utilize citrate, an abundant but previously untapped carbon source in the environment. Descendants of these cells became dominant in the population and subsequently diversified as a consequence of invading this vacant niche. Mutations responsible for the appearance of rudimentary citrate utilization and for refining this ability have been characterized. However, the complete nature of the genetic and/or ecological events that set the stage for this key innovation is unknown. In particular, it is unclear why it took so long for citrate utilization to evolve and why it still has evolved in only one of the twelve E. coli populations after 30 years of the Lenski experiment. In this study, we recapitulated the initial mutation needed to evolve citrate utilization in strains isolated from throughout the first 31,500 generations of the history of this population. We found that there was already a slight fitness benefit for this mutation in the original ancestor of the evolution experiment and in other early isolates. However, evolution of citrate utilization was blocked at this point due to competition with other mutations that improved fitness in the original niche. Subsequently, an anti-potentiated genetic background evolved in which it was deleterious to evolve rudimentary citrate utilization. Only later, after further mutations accumulated that restored the benefit of this first-step mutation and the overall rate of adaptation in the population slowed, was citrate utilization likely to evolve. Thus, intense competition and the types of mutations that it favors can lead to short-sighted evolutionary trajectories that hide a stepping stone needed to access a key innovation from many future generations.