I am "car free" and ride my bike every day, but I've never raced or anything like that. However, I do find it fascinating to watch the velodrome when the Olympics come around every four years. My wife and kids saw it for the first time this year and found it utterly bizarre that the racers attempted to go so slowly until the final sprint. I had a hard time explaining it to them (that would be a tangential question to pose to those more knowledgeable), and in particular I didn't know how to answer the question in my subject line, which actually seems reasonable.
Presumably when this sport was invented, it was expected that, just like a track and field event like a 1500m, racers might pace themselves somewhat and wait to make a break for the finish line at the end, but they would still ride reasonably fast before then. I'm assuming the advantage of drafting was so great that before long, it evolved to the way it is now. (Which also begs the question: why not just make the race distance a lot shorter so as to dispense with all the slow riding that does look silly to casual viewers?)
I'm just wondering though: what if someone unexpectedly went out there and just started hauling a## right from the get-go, taking their opponent by surprise? Mightn't they "get the drop" on them such that their opponent wouldn't be able to catch up close enough to get into drafting position?
On the other side of the coin: why hasn't this "evolution" caused longer road races like the Tour de France to become slower and slower except for the stretch run? (Other than the time trial stage, of course.)